Last night’s Screen Actors Guild Awards showcased more female empowerment, where all the competitive awards were presented by women, actors praised those who had “ended the silence” about sexual harassment and financed films dedicated to telling women’s stories, and SAG announced a new on-set code of conduct. Host Kristen Bell noted the “active momentum” and encouraged her audience to “lead the charge with empathy and diligence because fear and anger never win the race.”
These developments indicate that the women of Hollywood are not just engaging in awards-show dramatics. They are building on a rich tradition of activism inaugurated by Harry Belafonte and others over half a century ago, when celebrity activists used their fame to bolster the cause of civil rights and, in the process, revealed the political potential of entertainment.
Nicknamed the Stars for Freedom by Martin Luther King Jr., the celebrity contingent of the civil rights movement played an important role in its success. Belafonte, along with Sammy Davis Jr., Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Dick Gregory and Sidney Poitier, were its most consistent and effective star supporters.
Like the women who have recently spoken out against sexual assault, the Stars for Freedom were effective in part because their lived experiences of racism legitimized their activism. Then as now, pundits often claimed that celebrities did not live in the real world, and thus could not understand everyday problems. But black actors faced higher rates of unemployment, disparate wages and racial hostility on set in Hollywood and dealt with segregated facilities and neighborhoods across the country. These experiences allowed them to intimately understand the issues being advocated by civil rights activists.
The same holds true for the women of Time’s Up, as Hollywood’s high unemployment rate and abundance of aspiring young talent has allowed a culture of exploitation to fester in the film industry. These activists have shared moving stories about their experiences. Ashley Judd, one of the first major stars to go on record about Harvey Weinstein’s abuses, and Reese Witherspoon have both told of being assaulted when underage.
If fame can’t protect actors from discrimination, it can help them confront it. The Stars for Freedom recognized that their fame gave them a unique platform to discuss these issues. Belafonte used his name recognition and relationship with mainstream audiences to raise money for civil rights events and spread awareness of movement goals. He developed personal relationships with King and other movement activists, and worked strategically to promote press coverage, political connections and fundraising.
So too do today’s female stars hope to use their visibility and wealth to highlight harassment in other sectors of the economy, especially for domestic workers, farmworkers and others who may face harassment and abuse behind closed doors or after hours, often with little recourse. This is why Michelle Williams brought Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement and senior director of Girls for Gender Equity, to the Golden Globes, and why Laura Dern brought Mónica Ramírez, cofounder of Alianza Nacional de Campesina and an advocate for farmworker and immigrant women.
And just as Belafonte raised money to bail civil rights activists out of jail, Time’s Up has established a legal defense fund to subsidize the court costs for women and men fighting sexual harassment in the workplace.
Finally, like the Stars for Freedom before them, Time’s Up activists are making political alliances across Hollywood to advance their cause. Much like King, Belafonte believed that he needed to build a wide-ranging coalition of celebrities to win over white allies of all political stripes. The Stars for Freedom grew to include more African American entertainers like Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll, white progressives such as Edward G. Robinson and actors with more conservative leanings like Frank Sinatra and Charlton Heston. This not only helped sell the universal appeal of their message, but allowed the movement to tap into a variety of fan bases.
Similarly, Time’s Up began with a core group of women, including African Americans like producer Shonda Rhimes and Latinas like Eva Longoria. Also important: they are making alliances with men and nonliberals. For instance, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who was once a registered Republican, joined the fashion “blackout.”
As Belafonte can attest, successful celebrity activists do not just talk the talk. They work strategically behind the scenes and connect with grass-roots activists to make their public appeals. The current awards show activism reflects similar tactics, indicating potential long-term success for Hollywood’s Time’s Up initiative. As Longoria said at the Golden Globes, “This is not a moment, it’s a movement. Tonight is just one small part of that.”