Os­cars and the art of po­lit­i­cal speech

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY ALYSSA ROSENBERG Alyssa Rosenberg’s pol­i­tics and cul­ture blog, Act Four, ap­pears on­line at wash­ing­ton­post.com/opin­ions.

When Hol­ly­wood’s elite gather Sun­day for the Academy Awards, they’re likely to of­fer au­di­ences not just the an­nual spec­ta­cle over who will take home the big prizes, but a widely watched po­lit­i­cal rally as well. From Meryl Streep’s call at the Golden Globes for “the fa­mously well­heeled Hol­ly­wood foreign press and all of us in our com­mu­nity” to sup­port the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists, to Bryan Cranston’s in­vo­ca­tion of Lyn­don B. John­son at the Screen Ac­tors Guild Awards, stars have had plenty to say about the new ad­min­is­tra­tion.

As a lib­eral who writes about the po­lit­i­cal power of art, I ought to be ex­cited to see who will let loose at the Dolby Theatre. In­stead, I’ll be watch­ing the ac­cep­tance speeches through my fin­gers, brac­ing my­self in case a win­ner gets em­bar­rass­ingly self-pity­ing about crit­i­cism of the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, or stupidly con­de­scend­ing to­ward Trump vot­ers. That’s the up­side and the down­side of the still-huge plat­form of­fered by the Os­cars broad­cast.

Tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans will hear what Hol­ly­wood has to say Sun­day, but a shared love of movies doesn’t al­ways mean shared pol­i­tics. Lib­er­als in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try who want to make the most of their plat­form should choose their mes­sages care­fully, lest they back­fire.

If win­ners want to make an im­pact, they should take a les­son from the sorts of smart, is­sue-ori­ented movies the Academy Awards of­ten cel­e­brate. Films such as best pic­ture nom­i­nees “Hid­den Fig­ures,” “Hell or High Wa­ter” and “Fences” lead with great char­ac­ters and make pol­icy seem real and re­lat­able without be­ing con­fined by the talk­ing points that gov­ern politi­cians.

There’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween a movie that spools out over two hours and an ac­cep­tance speech that in­cludes a po­lit­i­cal point, artis­tic ideas and thank-yous quickly enough to avoid the in­dig­nity of get­ting played off the stage. Which is not to say it’s an im­pos­si­ble task: Con­tenders can look to two peers who made the rounds ear­lier this year for ex­am­ples of how to pull this off.

When “Moon­light” actor Ma­her­shala Ali was named best sup­port­ing actor at the SAG Awards in Jan­uary, his re­marks tied his per­for­mance as Juan, a man who takes in a ne­glected child teased for his per­ceived soft­ness and po­ten­tial ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, to Ali’s own ex­pe­ri­ences with dif­fer­ence.

“[Juan] saw a young man fold­ing into him­self as a re­sult of the per­se­cu­tion of his com­mu­nity, and tak­ing that op­por­tu­nity to up­lift him, and tell him that he mat­tered and that he was okay and ac­cept him. And I hope that we do a bet­ter job of that,” Ali ex­plained.

“My mother is an or­dained min­is­ter, I’m a Mus­lim. She didn’t do back­flips when I called her to tell her I con­verted 17 years ago. But I tell you now, we put things to the side, and I was able to see her. She’s able to see me, we love each other, the love has grown.”

Ali’s speech drew a con­nec­tion be­tween anti­gay sen­ti­ment and sus­pi­cion of Is­lam without strain­ing the com­par­i­son. That cre­ated space for au­di­ences to step back and ap­ply now­fa­mil­iar op­po­si­tion to bul­ly­ing to a new sub­ject, and en­cour­aged lis­ten­ers to con­sider that all sus­pi­cions of dif­fer­ence might spring from the same well. Ali was able to por­tray his mother’s lack of en­thu­si­asm for his con­ver­sion as some­thing he was glad she had over­come without la­bel­ing her a bigot.

And though it was sub­tle, Ali’s ref­er­ence to his con­ver­sion was a re­minder that Is­lam is more than the harsh car­i­ca­ture bandied about by politi­cians; it’s a faith that he chose, and one that sus­tains him.

At the same cer­e­mony, which took place dur­ing the air­port chaos that fol­lowed Pres­i­dent Trump’s first ex­ec­u­tive or­der on im­mi­gra­tion, Ju­lia Louis-Drey­fus also made a per­sonal con­nec­tion, then took it a step fur­ther.

“I want you all to know that I am the daugh­ter of an im­mi­grant. My fa­ther fled re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion in Nazi-oc­cu­pied France,” she ex­plained be­fore read­ing a state­ment on the ex­ec­u­tive or­der from the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­ica ar­gu­ing that “‘Our guilds are unions of sto­ry­tellers who al­ways wel­comed those from the na­tions of vary­ing be­liefs who wish to share their cre­ativ­ity with Amer­ica. We are grate­ful for them.’ ”

The mes­sage: If you like Louis-Drey­fus’s scabrous per­for­mance as a politi­cian on “Veep,” or movies and tele­vi­sion in gen­eral, you have an in­vest­ment in im­mi­gra­tion.

These speeches were un­com­pro­mis­ing and pas­sion­ate. And they worked be­cause they weren’t aimed squarely at the nar­row slice of peo­ple who saw “Moon­light” or watch “Veep,” or who al­ready agree po­lit­i­cally with the peo­ple de­liv­er­ing them. Ali and Louis-Drey­fus did what the best politi­cians do: They thought care­fully about how best to reach a wide au­di­ence. And they added what great sto­ry­tellers can: spe­cific ex­pe­ri­ences, dra­matic stakes and a vi­sion broader than the one we glimpse through the tiny key­hole of ca­ble news.

The Os­cars are a draw in part be­cause the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try is ex­tremely good at show­ing us what the world could be, not just what a di­vided Congress or a flail­ing pres­i­dent can pull off. When win­ners step onto the stage on Sun­day, they should re­mem­ber their power rather than turn­ing them­selves into mere politi­cians.


Ma­her­shala Ali ac­cepts the award for male actor in a sup­port­ing role dur­ing the Screen Ac­tors Guild Awards last month.


Ju­lia Louis-Drey­fus ac­cepts out­stand­ing per­for­mance by a fe­male actor in a com­edy se­ries for “Veep” at the Screen Ac­tors Guild Awards in Jan­uary.

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