Do Hollywood's protest politics make any difference at all?

Actress Emma Stone accepts Best Actress for 'La La Land' during this week's Academy Awards (Christopher Polk/Getty Images/AFP)
Actress Emma Stone accepts Best Actress for 'La La Land' during this week's Academy Awards (Christopher Polk/Getty Images/AFP)

For the second year in a row, the build-up to the Oscars has focused less on what happens on stage and more on the wider world beyond it.

Last year, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign highlighted a lack of diversity that stretched far beyond merely Hollywood's niche of the entertainment industry. This year, with feelings about Donald Trump's policies running high, the question was how political the Oscars would be?

Not very, in the end, although there were a couple of jabs at the US president by the host Jimmy Kimmel, who thanked Mr Trump for making the Oscars look less racist.

This is Oscars activism and when it occasionally awakens from its slumber – almost always during the presidency of a Republican – it is cast as the bold and the beautiful speaking truth to those in power. If only.

There are two main issues with Oscars activism. The first is that it is only done when it is popular to do so. At a moment when the US is convulsed by politics, it is easy to make political statements. Indeed, were Hollywood celebrities not to talk politics, they would look out of touch – a culturally and economically flawed strategy.

Far from being radical, Hollywood is actually instinctively conservative – this is a century-old industry that only in 2015 released a major film explicitly depicting a sexual relationship between a black man and a white woman, Will Smith and Margot Robbie in Focus – and rarely wants to get out ahead of the majority of the general public.

But it is the second aspect that I think is more concerning. Oscars activism creates a false sense of opposition to political power. It's like a comfort blanket for those who don't like what is happening in US politics but don't want to take the time to do anything about it.

Politics, after all, takes place in the details and most people would prefer to watch a comedian "tear into" Mr Trump than actually get involved in the hard work of opposing his policies.

An illustration of both of these aspects comes from the George W Bush years. The high point of Oscars activism comes from the 2003 awards, when Michael Moore, a vociferous opponent of Mr Bush, won an Oscar for Bowling for Columbine.

In his acceptance speech – which was given mere days after US fighter jets began bombing Baghdad – he denounced the "man sending us to war for fictitious reasons".

The audience looked utterly bewildered, unable to process this intrusion of reality, and Moore was booed and eventually his speech was halted. Hollywood's fear of real political power is so great that the entertainment capital of the country wouldn't even let Moore speak freely.

Contrast that, when Moore was voicing a genuinely controversial opinion on a real political policy, with the literal standing ovation Meryl Streep received on Sunday night for calling out Mr Trump for mocking a disabled reporter. Streep was right to do it, no doubt, but it's a position no one, not even Mr Trump given his defensive tweets on the subject, could disagree with. Even when it tries, Hollywood's anti-establishment politics are vanilla.

Worse than vanilla, in fact, because far from opposing the excesses of American power, Hollywood actually enables them.

Zero Dark Thirty, a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, was so servile in promoting the CIA's message that torture works – and indeed was explicitly changed to reflect what the Agency wanted – that the US senator tasked with investigating the CIA's torture programme walked out of the film and called it "false".

Hollywood's response was to lavish the film with Oscar nominations – and this was 2012, recall, when some of the worst abuses of the "war on terror" were already public knowledge. Nor was that a one-off: American Sniper, now derided as "terrorsploitation", also won an Academy Award two years later.

As with the Oscar event itself, few want to look behind the curtain. The perception that Hollywood is fighting for liberal causes only works on the most superficial level. Those who disliked Mr Bush and his conservative base stopped caring and talking politics the moment Barack Obama became president.

It didn't matter that Mr Obama took over many of the worst aspects of Mr Bush's administration – and, indeed, took them a step further, for the first time killing US citizens abroad without a trial. It wasn't the policy that Hollywood minded so much as the politician.

In a sense, of course, this shouldn't be a surprise. Entertainers love public applause and applause rarely follows unpopular opinions. Now that public opinion has shifted against the Iraq war, it is impossible to imagine a room full of Hollywood actors booing criticism of it.

Far from leading a public debate, Hollywood is actually a barometer of it. Whichever way the wind is blowing, the cameras follow.

But that does not replace politics, it merely replicates it. Opposition to Mr Trump will neither begin nor end on the red carpets of California. It takes place in the gritty streets of average American towns and in the grey, faceless halls of lawmakers up and down the country; all places where there are no spotlight. And no one in Hollywood can exist without a spotlight.

falyafai@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

Published: February 27, 2017 04:00 AM

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