Award shows are often carefully controlled to keep out politics and prevent offence. But this week's British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) joined the growing list of ceremonies that entertainers have used as platforms to express their views. The challenge for movie stars is galvanising change without alienating those living outside their bubble of glamour and privilege.
Several BAFTA attendees took the opportunity to speak out against Donald Trump's controversial policies, including comedian and host Stephen Fry. He called the US president, by implication, a "blithering idiot". Emma Stone, who won the Best Actress award for her turn in La La Land, diagnosed the world as "going through a bit of a time". She praised BAFTA and its ceremony for letting its attendees “come together, to share the positive gift of creativity, which transcends borders”.
But when beautiful, successful people gather to shower one another with praise and wax lyrical about the importance of their work, they risk creating a mirror version of the echo chamber in which Trump conducts his business. Awards ceremonies are too easily written off as occasions for out-of-touch liberal elites to reward themselves, reducing their political statements to grandstanding. The fawning praise for La La Land, a well-executed but self-congratulatory throwback to Hollywood’s golden age, only reinforces that perspective.
Both the Brexit and Trump campaigns drew support from neglected segments of society, those left behind by neo-liberalism who have grown tired of elites telling them how to live their lives. Hollywood, and cinema in general, rank among the most visible examples of this, joining newspapers and broadcasters in the reviled mainstream media. Movies' ability to reach millions of people is a blessing and a curse, inspiring some to chase their dreams or fight for change, but angering others by rubbing their faces in their relative poverty.
Some of cinema’s more adroit personalities have used their fame to make powerful political statements. One of the best-known examples is Marlon Brando, who refused his Academy Award in 1973 in support of the American Indian Movement that occupied Wounded Knee. Using his slot to give airtime to Sacheen Littlefeather, he subverted a government-enforced media embargo on the ongoing protests and put pressure on the FBI to change its policy. Brando made his point without showing his face or glamorising his efforts.
Meryl Streep delivered a passionate, politically charged speech at the Golden Globes in January. The actress criticised Trump for mocking a disabled reporter, and called for a unified media to scrutinise and combat his toxic policies. She has since spoken at the Human Rights Campaign in New York and had her own Twitter feud with the president. This extended activism, engaged with media and popular protest, is what makes the real difference beyond Hollywood’s halcyon bubble – not Stone’s glorified, isolated stand against a vague oppression.
Cinema can still have a visceral, political impact. Its stars need to focus on mobilising communities through targeted activism and move away from feeding their egos. We’ve seen a successful example with the Women’s Marches, which started in Washington but spread worldwide with the help of two million residents of Los Angeles, a liberal stronghold.
Ken Loach showcased the right approach at the BAFTAs. His film I, Daniel Blake told a realistic, human story about an inglorious and unsung fight. Loach reinforced its message during his acceptance speech for Best British Film: “…the most vulnerable and the poorest people are treated by this government with a callous brutality that is disgraceful”.
As a long-time auteur and mainstream outsider, it may be easier for Loach to rebel than others who might scupper their careers by speaking up. But Hollywood and the broader film industry could learn a lot from his self-effacing, community-driven, targeted and unrelenting method of revolt. Gold, glitz and glamour don't make a cause relatable – they actively undermine a message of protest and push people away.