The actor was speaking to the audience at the EE British Academy Film Awards, Britain’s equivalent of the Oscars. The ceremony is more commonly known by the acronym of its voting body — the British Academy of Film and Television Arts — which failed to nominate a single actor of color this year despite celebrated performances by Awkwafina, Eddie Murphy and U.K. native Cynthia Erivo, among others.
“I think that we send a very clear message to people of color that you’re not welcome here,” Phoenix continued. “I think that’s the message that we’re sending to people that have contributed so much to our medium and our industry and in ways that we benefit from.”
“I don’t think anybody wants a handout or preferential treatment, although that’s what we give ourselves every year,” he said. “I think people want to be acknowledged, appreciated and respected for their work.”
Phoenix has delivered several speeches this year, following best actor wins at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Critics’ Choice Awards. And he has made no secret of his cynicism toward awards ceremonies, even as his speeches have touched on climate change and other issues. The most memorable part of his rambling Globes speech last month was one that viewers at home didn’t hear — because the actor’s expletives were bleeped out as he declared “there is no […] best actor.”
His speeches have become more focused in the weeks since. At the SAG Awards, he praised each of his fellow nominees and offered an emotional tribute to the late Heath Ledger, who was posthumously awarded an Oscar in 2009 for his portrayal of the Joker in “The Dark Knight.”
Phoenix was widely praised on social media following his BAFTAs speech, particularly for the second half, in which he admitted that he’s “part of the problem.” While Phoenix appeared to be speaking generally about his privilege as a white actor, he has collected trophies for a film criticized for its dismissive treatment of black women, in addition to the louder controversy surrounding “Joker’s” extreme violence.
“I have not done everything in my power to ensure that the sets I work on are inclusive. But I think that it’s more than just having sets that are multicultural,” Phoenix said. “I think that we really have to do the hard work to truly understand systemic racism.”
He concluded with a subtle appeal to white actors: “I think that it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it. So, that’s on us.”
Phoenix’s peers were among those praising his speech. “Thank you Joaquin Phoenix. For your honesty, solidarity AND courage,” tweeted Viola Davis, whose awards show speeches have been particularly well-received throughout her career. “Well done.”
“An uncomfortable silence filled the hall for a long noticeable moment,” Lulu Wang, director of “The Farewell,” noted on Twitter. “Thank you Joaquin.”
“We mostly hear women speak up and this is encouraging and will help our work,” tweeted Alma Har’el, director of Shia LaBeouf’s “Honey Boy.”
Phoenix is likely to give another speech this Sunday at the Academy Awards, where he is the favorite to win best actor. The nominees for that ceremony are slightly more diverse than the BAFTA picks, but the nominations have still been criticized for overlooking performers of color and female directors.