Oscars and the art of political speech
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.