With more black men under correctional control today than there were under slavery in 1850, POLITICO’s “An Evening with John Legend” proved to be a necessary departure from the stereotypically hollow White House Correspondence Dinner party mold.
Co-moderated by POLITICO’s Mike Allen, and powerhouse human rights lawyer, Rights4Girls Executive Director, Malika Saada Saar, the event brought together lawmakers, politicos, and artists for a frank conversation on human rights and the need for criminal justice reform. In doing so, they reinforced what I’ve always believed to be true: music, film, and a story well told, have an unparalleled power to drive political change.
Using music and celebrity as the backbone of this critical conversation, the event spurred dialogue between the very individuals who have the power to change the status quo. This list includes but is not limited to former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Muñoz, Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, and Right on Crime Founder Marc Levin. Coupled with the support that award-winning musician John Legend and other artists such as Common, actress Taylor Schilling of “Orange is the New Black,” and documentary filmmakers Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega of The Return bring to the issue, there’s room to do more than raise awareness alone.
The influence that art — music, film, and stories — has in politics isn’t about mere celebrity endorsements. Influence is not a tweet in support of a cause or so-called “clicktavism,” signaling followers to “Like” or “Share” a Facebook post. While these digital interactions bring more voices into the fold, the role art plays in politics goes far beyond what’s trending. Art creates empathy, deepens understanding in a non-threatening way, and has the power to change behaviors and beliefs.
Hollywood’s storytellers — writers, directors, producers — and studio chiefs wield as much if not more influence than artists themselves. Just last week Congresswoman Karen Bass (CA-37) introduced Fox Searchlight Pictures President Nancy Utley at the MPAA Creativity Conference and acknowledged her for moving the needle on pressing social and political issues. Representative Bass mentioned the gut-wrenching and true story of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave and the power of the Golden Globe and Academy Award-winning film to compel a real cultural awakening around the issue. “It put slavery and brutality out in front,” she said, “these issues are more often than not overlooked and ignored.”
Dramas like 12 Years a Slave and more recently, Selma, are spurring dialogue, but more importantly, they’re reinvigorating political action around race, incarceration, and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Congresswoman Bass referenced another Fox Searchlight film under Utley’s leadership, Antwone Fisher. This film captured the emotional and physical pain many foster children are forced to experience and endure. It resounded so powerfully that it prompted Congressional hearings on foster system reform.
Utley spoke to the importance of Fox Searchlight’s decision to acquire Davis Guggenheim’s newest documentary, He Named Me Malala — an uncommon move by the 20th Century Fox sister company since documentaries aren’t typically a top revenue generator. The film, which hits theaters on October 2, explores the life of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani student activist and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate. While Yousafzai’s autobiography is an international bestseller, Utley underscored that “sometimes a movie is just an easier way in for people. So if we can get people around the globe to see the film, maybe we can further help her mission.”
The use of film, specifically documentaries, to influence policy is most evident in the case of military sexual assault. Although advocates had been working on the issue for decades, it wasn’t until the release of the Academy Award-nominated film, The Invisible War, and the launch of its adjoining social action campaign ( which, in the interests of full disclosure, I had the privilege of working on), that the mainstream public was galvanized into action. U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) championed the issue after seeing the film and credits it as the impetus for her landmark legislation, the Military Justice Improvement Act.
There’s no doubt that film, music, and stories well told have an unequaled ability to transcend barriers, create empathy, and deepen political and social collaboration among audiences of differing opinions. They are incredible vehicles to amplify messages, engage unreachable audiences, and humanize customary statistics that move us to take action in more deliberate ways.
I believe wholeheartedly this trend of collaboration will continue to grow. The trailer release for Meryl Streep’s Suffragette in the UK coincided with the General Election and included a call-to-arms to vote. Paramount is sending free DVDs of Selma to every high school in America. AFI DOCS — the internationally acclaimed documentary film festival — now includes a dedicated political engagement lab for select filmmakers. But it’s only after we break out of the stereotypical mold and intentionally bridge the 3,000-mile gap that Hollywood and Washington, together, can catalyze change, effect policy, and create generational impact.
By Heidi Nel, Principal and Partner, Picture Motion @HeidiNel