Blurred Lines: Hollywood meets Washington

This year the red carpet welcomed something more than its usual fare of gowned and tuxedoed celebrities attending the 2017 Oscars; this year it seemed to also bear the weight of American politics. This presence was visible in the blue ribbon pinned to the gowns of nominee for best actress for “Loving”, Ruth Negga, as well as Busy Phillips, Karlie Kloss, and Lin Manuel-Miranda, all wearing the symbol to show their support for the ACLU (American Civil Liberties union). DuVernay, director of the nominated documentary “13th“, an exposé on black oppression in America from slavery to the ‘new Jim Crow’, also wore her politics on her sleeve. In a Lebanese-made gown by AshiStudio, she tweeted, “A small sign of solidarity. I chose to wear a gown by a designer from a majority Muslim country.”

In some cases absence spoke louder than words: particularly the empty seat of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi of “Salesman”, the winner of best foreign-language film. He dedicated his boycott of the ceremony as a sign of solidarity and respect to the people of his country, one of the six Muslim majority countries covered by President Trump’s travel ban and barred from entering the U.S.. And while Farhadi’s absence spoke for Iran, Gael Garcia Bernal present at the event spoke-up for Mexico and against “any kind of wall that wants to separate us”.

Farad’s absence not only evoked the injustice perpetrated by the ban, but also the director’s desire to share in the fate of those affected. By excluding himself from the ceremony, from his moment of glory, his moment in the Hollywood sun, was he perhaps also reminding Hollywood and by extension the American public that an indiscriminate ban will exert a price on America too through the loss of talent, creativity, and innovation? His absence would bring home to Hollywood the very real unfairness and absurdity of Trump’s executive order.

Hollywood Politics 

Farhadi was only doing what others have done before him, like Marlon Brando who refused to attend the 1973 Oscar to accept his win for “The Godfather”, and instead sent Native American activist and Apache tribe member Sacheen Littlefeather to decry the treatment of American-Indians by the film industry.

Hollywood has always been a place for not only showcasing film making and acting talent, but also providing a platform for political and social activism; from Charlie Chaplin who used a myriad of visual techniques to poke fun at the people in power to Tramp’s sharp cinematic barbs that spared no one.

Today, however, Hollywood activism centers on ‘issue-oriented politics’, like when Edward G. Robinson demonstrated how individuals of the entertainment industry could utilize power and status to direct the nation towards matters of substance and controversy. Take the 1930s, when most of America was ambivalent to the rise of Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Franco’s Spain, when it was left to Hollywood’s Anti-Nazi league to take the lead through the staging of demonstrations, airing radio programs, and even publishing its own newspaper to draw attention to the issues and their concerns.

It wasn’t long before Hollywood began producing politicians, paving the way for the likes of Trump, who perhaps owes his own ascendancy to men such as George Murphy and Ronald Reagan who launched ‘movement politics’ from the right. These two actors understood the importance of image in gaining political influence. Indeed, when Murphy was elected to the Senate in 1964 and Reagan became governor of California in 1966, a page had turned: being a celebrity was no bar to taking on ‘high office’.

Meanwhile on the left of the political spectrum stood Jane Fonda and Harry Belafonte, the most celebrated African-American singer and screen star of the 1950s. Both fought for transformation in state-society relations, led aggressive coalitions against racism in the fight for civil rights, and campaigned to end the Vietnam war. Indeed, there’s a long tradition of Hollywood A-listers taking on the issues of the day: from Irving who dedicated his few moments on stage at the 2000 Oscars to tackling abortion, to Michael Moore’s 2003 impassioned condemnation of the US invasion of Iraq, repeatedly shaming President Bush for launching a ‘fictitious’ war.

Carrying on the tradition, this year’s 89th Academy Awards shone its light on what is most troubling in the world today. It was cast on the plight of Muslims in Syria and elsewhere, by Orlando Von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara, director and producer of nominated best short documentary, White Helmets. They accepted their award citing a verse from the Qu’ran: “to save one life is to save all of humanity”.

In addition to the many statements of protest and solidarity at the Oscars, of even greater significance was the string of films on display dealing with issues that American society is struggling with today. In many ways, the Trump era has sharpened the political messages drawn from Hollywood productions. Take a film like Hidden Figures, based on a true story about black female NASA systems’ pioneers, which acts as a fierce rebuttal to the bleak disparaging rhetoric relating to race, such as that of Steve Kings who doubted out loud whether ‘non-white subgroups’ have ever contributed anything of substance to society. Then there was Troy Maxson and Chiron in Moonlight who demurred to Hollywood’s one-dimensional portrayals of felonious black men, by depicting rich and multi-faceted characters who tell a story of hardship through a poignant search for identity, a journey which transcends all races and touches the core of human experience.

At the heart of all minorities is the desire to be seen as “full complicated human beings“, whose access to the popular mainstream has too often been through the channels of stereotypical narratives, where black characters for instance had few alternatives but to fill the roles of “servants, slaves, drug addicts, musicians, athletes or criminals“.

When Moonlight director Barry Jenkins accepted the award for best adapted screenplay, he gave hope and support to “all you people out there who feel there’s no mirror for you, that your life is not reflected, we have your back, and for the next four years we will not leave you alone”. Playwright director McCraney addressed his message to all “those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender conforming”.

These messages seem to speak directly to the “epidemic of invisibility” which cloaks minority ethnic groups, women, and LGBT narratives in Hollywood. The USC-conducted Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity, published days before the 2016 Oscars and circulated on social media as OscarsSoWhite, revealed that minority groups accounted for no more than 28 percent of speaking characters in films and television series, while only 2 percent were identified as LGBT. The film industry was correspondingly portrayed as “still function[ing] as a straight, white, boy’s club“. A year later, as minority producers and actors took centre stage, marginalized characters and hidden identities emerged from the shadows and onto the Hollywood silver screen, to tell the uncompromising and subversive truth through the highest and most influential mediums of American story-telling.

Washington vs. Hollywood

With all these angry and sad declarations from stars stating what they stand for, Hollywood is once again in the spotlight where art and politics collide. We are witnessing stars emboldened and willing to use their celebrity status to speak out against the President; is this perhaps because he was himself a staple in the American entertainment industry?  Since he used his TV renown to become President, does this make him a more accessible and compelling adversary?

But are celebrities taking too many liberties in indulging their moments on stage to voice their opinions? Will their heart-felt utterances simply fuel the back-lash against the liberal elite for whom they are perceived to speak? Some have said this reinforces the notion that Hollywood lives in its own self-satisfied bubble, and more importantly, that there are different political realities in America which must be weighed in terms of “what it means in Hollywood versus what it means in the rest of the country.” Meryl Streep, ever the trail-blazer, was the first Hollywood A-listers to use centre stage at the Golden Globes ceremony to decry Trump’s “bullying” tendencies. Whatever impact she was seeking, it came down to just another confrontation between Trump and one of his many detractors, and in the end there were “Those who think Meryl Steep’s speech […] was great” and “those who think this […] is why Donald Trump Won”. Ultimately every celebrity has the choice to bring their personal views, even if they are widely held, to the public forum. They will listen to their publicists as well as to their conscience in deciding which role to play. As actress Zoe Saldana said, by attacking the man to whom they have no connection and only creating empathy in a big group of people in America, Hollywood inadvertently helped Trump’s rise.

Celebrities are among America’s most privileged. Several have come out against Trump, and to many Americans this just proves all the points Trump had made to get elected. His deft feat was to bridge the worlds of wealth, privilege, and TV stardom with that of ordinary people, something celebrities in their ivory towers have failed to do. And now Trump is even blurring the lines between Washington and Hollywood. Oscars’ presenter Jimmy Kimmel hit the nail on the head when he said, “we don’t have to watch reality shows anymore, because we’re living in one”. Underlying this statement is an increasingly confused America, experiencing a convergence of different spheres.

In a world where politics have become entertainment and entertainment has become political, to whom does the audience turn for guidance; who will speak for them and their collective consciousness? The celebrities or the politicians? In today’s America, is there even a difference?