“Nina Simone said it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.”
That line came from newly minted Oscar winner John Legend during what was arguably one of the most politically charged Academy Awards shows in recent memory.
- From a red carpet campaign to #AskHerMore than “who are you wearing?” to Steve Carell’s cufflinks supporting the U.N.’s HeForShe campaign;
- from Patricia Arquette’s GiveLove.org plug on her way in to the Kodak Theater, to her impassioned plea for wage equality and equal rights for women while clutching her Best Supporting Actress award;
- from Laura Poitras, director of this year’s Best Documentary Feature Citizen Four, warning that the government surveillance programs disclosed by Edward Snowden “don’t only expose the threat to our privacy, but to our democracy itself,” to host Neil Patrick Harris’s dead-on-arrival retort about Snowden not being there “for some treason”;
- from NPH’s better-received opening joke about Hollywood’s “best and whitest,” to Birdman director and triple-Oscar-winner Alejandro González Iñárritu’s closing plea that his home country of Mexico “build a government that we deserve,” and that new immigrants to the United States be treated with “the same dignity and respect of the ones that came before and built this incredible, immigrant nation,”
Sunday’s 87th Academy Awards went a good deal further than they usually do to honor Simone’s dictum.
But arguably the most powerful moment — both inside the theater and for the show’s vast television audience — was the performance of “Glory,” the song from the end credits of the docudrama Selma, and the acceptance speech from the song’s writer-performers.
As noted last month, Selma, the film about the protests that lead to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, missed an opportunity during its ending postscript to bring viewers up to date on the state of that hard-won law today. Markedly successful at extending enfranchisement and broadening political participation among African-Americans in the decades after enactment, the VRA was gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision.
Though Selma’s closing titles bring many of the stories in the movie forward, and even though “Glory,” the soundtrack for those last minutes, references the events last year in Ferguson, Missouri, the filmmakers decided to leave the story of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, itself, squarely in 1965. The movie tells you that President Lyndon Johnson signed the VRA into law, but nothing of what has happened to the law since.
But John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn, better known by their stage names, John Legend and Common, provided the update the film neglected.
Standing in front of a backdrop depicting the entrance to Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, Common said “This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation, but now is a symbol for change.”
“The spirit of this bridge,” Common continued, “connects the kid from the South side of Chicago, dreaming of a better life to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy.”
Then Legend stepped to the microphone. “We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago,” he said, “but we say Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now.”
The singer-songwriter then brought home the point in a way the film that used his song did not.
“We know that the voting rights, the act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today,” Legend said. “We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you that we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on.”
Though the context of Legend’s statistic — likely drawn from “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander — deserves deeper exploration, the fact that blacks account for a disturbingly disproportionate part of the United States prison population is undeniable. African-Americans make up nearly 1 million of 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. today.
And to the point of the film itself, the 1965 Voting Rights Act has been severely compromised and faces a new round of attacks in coming months.
As with many of the causes cited throughout the awards show, the struggles for justice, dignity, representation and expression mentioned by Common and Legend are not one-offs from some sepia-tinted past. That may not have been obvious during Selma’s end credits, but it was clear Sunday night.
Perhaps Selma’s DVD release can include Common and Legend’s Oscar moment — it’s a postscript the story deserves.