“It’s my first time here, guys,” “black-ish” star Tracee Ellis Ross said while accepting her award for best actress in a musical or comedy television series. “It’s a nice room. I like it.” It was a remark that underscored the significance of her win, for playing Dr. Rainbow Johnson; she was the first black woman to take home that award from the Golden Globes in three and a half decades. And if Ross didn’t mention that fact explicitly, she dedicated her award to “all of the women, women of color, and colorful people, whose stories, ideas, thoughts are not always considered worthy and valid and important. But I want you to know: I see you. We see you.”
Hollywood’s idea of inclusion can feel perfunctory, or oriented more toward the bottom line than toward true validation. But Ross’s joyful gaze does not. Neither did Viola Davis’s when she mentioned her father, a groom at a horse track who was illiterate until he was 15. “He had a story, and it deserved to be told, and August Wilson told it,” Davis said of “Fences,” for which she won the best supporting actress trophy.
She returned to the stage to lionize her friend Streep, praising her empathy, sharp powers of observation, and apparently, Streep’s way around a pot of collard greens.
“I see you,” Davis told Streep. “You make me feel that what I have in me — my body, my face, my age — is enough.”
That power to reflect the world — all of the world — back at the audience, and to allow people to see themselves on-screen, is one of the leading reasons viewers gets so frustrated with Hollywood’s frequent awards-season myopia. When the entertainment industry loses its collective mind over a movie that celebrates Hollywood’s ability to tell stories and raise issues and make people feel without actually doing any of those things, it can feel like an incredibly powerful group of people has wandered into a house of mirrors and is vainly admiring its own reflection.*
Being worthy of having your story told isn’t merely an exercise in self-esteem. As we saw with “Hidden Figures,” Theodore Melfi’s excellent movie about the black women who worked for the American space program, if Hollywood sees your story worthy of telling, the movies can be your way back into the American historical record after decades of exclusion. A movie like Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight” is valuable not necessarily because it’s nice for black gay men to be able to watch movies about experiences that might mirror their own, but because it expands other viewers’ understanding of what it means to be a black man or a gay man. Those opportunities are powerful, but they also remain precious and relatively rare.
Donald Glover spoke to that transformative power last year when he told Salon’s television critic, Melanie McFarland, of his new series “Atlanta,” that “The thesis behind the show was to make people feel black. I know that is kind of impossible. … I think we kept trying to be like, ‘How do you make people feel that way?'”
After winning his second Golden Globe of the evening, for his performance as aspiring music manager and struggling dad Earnest Marks on “Atlanta,” which also won best television series in the musical or comedy category, Glover described making television and movies as a kind of transformative act.
“I grew up in a house where magic wasn’t allowed, so everyone in here was magical to me,” Glover, who was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, explained. “I was like, magic is from people. We’re the people who in a weird way tell a story or lie to children so they do stuff that we never knew was possible. … Now I do stuff, and [Glover’s father, who encouraged him, is] like, ‘I didn’t think that was possible.'”
That’s serious stuff, if not always as direct or satisfying as hitting the trail with a political candidate or decrying the eventual victor. But until Streep hit the stage, the speakers at the Golden Globes were proving not terribly effective when they addressed politics directly. After his teleprompter malfunctioned (and four months after a much-criticized interview with Trump), host Jimmy Fallon tried to fill up space with anemic jokes about the popular vote, Russian hacking, Trump’s troubles booking performers for his inauguration and a comparison between Trump and the late, unlamented King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) on “Game of Thrones” that was old on Twitter a year ago.
Hugh Laurie, winning for his work in “The Night Manager,” joked that he assumed this would be the last Golden Globes because “I don’t mean to be gloomy. It’s just that it has Hollywood, Foreign and Press in the title. And I think to some Republicans, even Association is slightly sketchy.” The point about the press is taken, and taken with thanks, but this formulation — which Streep repeated and made worse by prefacing it to say “You, and all of us in this room, really belong to the most vilified segment of American society right now”** — has the unfortunate effect of suggesting that some of the richest and most influential people in the world are victims.
Where Streep stood out was in making a specific ask, and assigning her fellow celebrities a specific responsibility. She used her speech to ask “the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community” to step up and back the Committee to Protect Journalists, which works on press freedom at home and abroad.
Sometimes, you make the world a better place by giving an undeniable performance that forces audiences to recognize the humanity of people they couldn’t even bear to look at before. And sometimes, you make a better place by taking a portion of your wealth and giving it to the people who can actually do the work you only portray on screen.
Hollywood has a long road back to political influence after the 2016 presidential election, where it emerged that the mere opinions of very famous people were not dispositive. The Golden Globes were a reminder that artists can respond with weak jokes about how Trump is bad, or they can do the work to inspire the institutions and communities that will help people who are at risk during a Trump administration to survive it.
*I should note that I don’t particularly think that “La La Land,” which is certain to experience a substantial backlash after tonight’s results, is guilty of this. It’s a movie that spends substantial time arguing that the entertainment industry produces a lot of ridiculous garbage, in the process wasting the talents and enthusiasms of the people who most truly love the best that the movies have to offer. Which could be read as vain, but in an entirely different way.
**Streep is a major gift to American cinema, but had I been editing her speech, I also would have cut that line about football and mixed-martial arts.