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Hollywood Roundtable Then & Now: Social Justice & Creating Art

With all that is going on in America today it’s hard to forget that some of the same issues we are fighting now were being fought 50 years ago. While the entertainment industry is well-known for serving as an escapism for some people, the industry has its fair share of social justice activists who tackle real world issues. Not only for the equality of all people everywhere, but also in their own specific acting careers.

Being an actor or performer of color was difficult in the 1960s; just ask Harry Belafonte or Lena Horne, and even in 2015 there are still actors of color that face discrimination in this business (Um. Hello? #OscarSoWhite). Take for example Hollywood’s famous roundtable discussions, talks that bring actors from different backgrounds together to engage in candid dialogue. They touch on pressing issues such as racism, sexism, ageism that effect them while navigating the business.

On Aug. 28, 1963 –the same day as Mr. Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech–Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, David Schoenburn, Joseph Manckiewicz, Marlon Brando, and James Baldwin sat down to discuss the meaning of civil rights after have attending the march.

Harry on whether or not he believes America can achieve the dream Martin Luther King Jr. talks about;

“I am not so certain it will be achieved without violence. Because the negro people have conducted themselves non-violently. The 200,000 people that were there today; there were many predictions that one could take book on whether there would be a display of violence by all the extreme factions and whatnot. But the truth of the matter is that the people who came to that gathering today were people in great anguish who come from the Birminghams and come from the Jackson, Mississippi’s and they came there with anguish and with hurt and with dignity and with integrity and it was one of the most orderly displays I’ve ever seen of 200,000 people. If the Bull Conners continue to release the bull dogs on the people as an answer to their legitimate cries, if they continue to use cattle rods to prod them, if they continue to use hoses to whip them through the streets, the human heart, and human body can only contain so much. There must come a point, if  they’re pushed to it, for retaliation. So once again I put the emphasis on who it is that will precipitate it. Because the Negro community, I think I can speak for most of the 20 million Negros are committed to this thing being done non-violently.”

Sidney on his involvement in the movement and the “negro question”;

“Well, yes I am forced to participate because it is my conviction that my country has to successfully negotiate the “negro question.” It is to me not a problem, it’s the question of the negro. The unsettled question of the negro in America, we must as a country successfully negotiate that before we can, with any degree of honesty, try to become eligible for participation in the future. We must negotiate other great questions that face us today. The stamina, the texture, of our endeavor, to solve the negro question will exemplify for me the kind of interest the country as a whole has in doing the things that are necessary for us to be entitled to a future.”

More recently, The Hollywood Reporter released their annul Emmy Roundtable Dramatic Actresses: Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Jessica Lange, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Lizzie Caplan. This particular discussion dealt more with what they faced in Hollywood as black women, where they draw inspiration from and what roles they wanted to take on next. (Someone go ahead and bring a production of Hedda Gabler to Broadway with Viola as Hedda and Taraji as Thea please!!!)

Taraji on what motivates her to take on roles and the iconic Cookie Lyon;

“That’s how I was trained. It’s never been about the money for me. I mean, I went from being an Oscar nominee [forThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button] to No. 10 on the call sheet. I’ve never once thought, “I’m now part of some elite group of actors; I’m never going to do theatre again or do an indie again.” If I fall in love with the role, I don’t care if it’s outside in the parking lot.

Cookie scared the hell out of me. Just before I got the role, I’d said, “F— it all, I’m going back to theatre.” I felt lazy and like I needed to sharpen the tools. So I did theatre at The Pasadena Playhouse. Then my manager said,”You have to read this script.” I’m like, “Hip-hop? Oh my God, what are they trying to do? Fox is going to pick this up? This isn’t HBO?” And then I got nervous and started pacing the floor. “Oh my God, Cookie is bigger than life. You will love her or hate her.” Empire has forced people to have conversations that they were afraid to have. And that is what art is supposed to do. I just didn’t know it was going to shake things up this much!”

Viola what drew her to Annalise Keating and what she would like to do next;

“There was absolutely no precedent for it. I had never seen a 49-year-old, dark-skinned woman who is not a size 2 be a sexualized role in TV or film. I’m a sexual woman, but nothing in my career has ever identified me as a sexualized woman. I was the prototype of the “mommified” role. Then all of a sudden, this part came, and fear would be an understatement. When I saw myself for the first time in the pilot episode, I was mortified. I saw the fake eyelashes and, “Are you kidding me? Who is going to believe this?” And then I thought: “OK, this is your moment to not typecast yourself, to play a woman who is sexualized and do your investigative work to find out who this woman is and put a real woman on TV who’s smack-dab in the midst of this pop fiction.

I’d like to go back to Broadway and revisit [Henrik Ibsen’s] Hedda Gabler at some point. But I mostly want what [actress] Lynn Redgrave said to me once. I did a reading of Agnes of God with her right before she died. She told me she’d left L.A. many years ago, and I asked her why. She said one thing she felt after many years in the business was that her past hadn’t counted for anything. I want to feel like my past has counted for something. I’ve been doing this for 27 years. I’ve performed in basements, churches, off-Broadway. I want the work to reflect my level of gifts and talent. I don’t want it to reflect my color, my sex or my age. That’s what I want most.”

It’s important that these roundtables exist and even more important that people of color are represented in them, letting their voices be heard. We’ve been silenced for so long, it’s extremely inspiring to hear when actors/actresses are using their platform to share their experiences and speak out against injustice. Whether it be in their field or in relation to the current state of America. After all, they are people too, they navigate through this world just the same as we do. Even though they have a bit more glitz and glamor, underneath it all they use their art to inspire and cultivate minds just like art should.


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