SAG Awards & Politics: Mahershala Ali, Taraji P. Henson, Denzel Washington, Lily Tomlin & Others Speak Their Mind

Associated Press

Hidden Figures took the top prize tonight at the 2017 SAG Awards, but President Trump was no hidden figure onstage or in the press room backstage, as many of the night’s big winners continued their political thoughts for assembled hacks.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock (8137133at) Mahershala Ali The 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, Show, Los Angeles, USA - 29 Jan 2017

Answering questions after winning Best Supporting Actor for his paternal role in Moonlight—and as part of Hidden Figures’ award-winning cast—Mahershala Ali explained what his impassioned speech meant to him. “It’s hurtful to see what’s happening to immigrants, and so on and so forth. It’s a challenging time,” Ali said. “As artists, as actors, we have an opportunity to make certain choices that shine a light on situations that light needs to be shined on. It helps our conversation, helps raise awareness because with awareness you can bring about change. That’s what we can do, and that’s the optimistic approach that I would like to have.”

“I remind you that I’m African American, so this is not new to me. My grandfather marched, he was in the NAACP, my great grandfather and great grandmother were active in the civil rights movement, and when my great grandmother died, they announced that she was a communist, and she wasn’t,” Ali continued, providing personal context. “My great grandfather lost his job, and he had five kids to take care of. This is not new. These things have existed before. It’s just as painful as it’s ever been, so it’s sad. It pains me, and I do identify with that struggle, what Muslims are dealing with specifically.”

Octavia Spencer, from left, Janelle Monae, and Taraji P. Henson accept the award for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture for "Hidden Figures" at the 23rd annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium & Expo Hall on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

For Hidden Figures, Taraji P. Henson celebrated the women at NASA whose stories inspired the film. “We have agency now as women. We can say what’s on our mind. Don’t focus on the problems. Focus on the solutions. What are we going to do to get past this?” Henson said. ” I think that’s why this film is so timely. The beautiful thing in 2017 is that the majority is on the right side of history. Fear not. Fear and faith cannot coexist. Pick your battles. I choose faith.”

“We have to speak up against injustice, and we have to kick some ass,” Emma Stone said emphatically, backstage for her latest La La Land accolade. “We have to speak up. Staying silent only helps the oppressor, not the victim. Right now I hope that people seeing things that are being done that are unconstitutional and inhumane would say something. I would hope that people would fight for what’s right, and what’s just f–king human. What’s f*cking human.”

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Stewart Cook/WWD/REX/Shutterstock (8137130cd) Denzel Washington The 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, Press Room, Los Angeles, USA - 29 Jan 2017

After becoming the surprise winner of the Best Actor award, director/star Denzel Washington said that citizens and artists need to hold their representatives accountable. “I think we as Americans better learn to unite. We need to put our elected officials’ feet to the fire and demand that they work together or they won’t get back into office. We’re getting further and further apart in this technological age,” Washington said. “Everybody can’t be right. I think this is an opportunity, actually, to look at ourselves and say, ‘Are we together, really, and are we holding our officials accountable to make sure they’re working together?’ This is what’s happening, and God only knows where it’s going.”

After a barnstorming speech on stage, David Harbour joined his Stranger Things cast in the press room and explained where it came from. “The speech went through many iterations,” Harbour explained. “I’ve had a lot of feelings and thoughts this past week and I wanted to express it in some way what we do through our art and the craft of acting. It’s not about how popular you are or how many likes you get.”

Lily Tomlin accepts the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 23rd annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium & Expo Hall on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award at the SAGs, actress Lily Tomlin was also very vocal about our troubling times, suggesting that stars use their platforms to actively pursue the passage of legislation. “Any activist should be talking about how to mount some legislation against what they’re opposed to. You’ve got to change the laws. Trumps changing the laws now. He’s trying to change the laws,” Tomlin said. “I don’t want to make this comparison, but the Nazis, they changed the laws. They just changed the laws, and they could do whatever they wanted. We have to be vigilant and stop certain behaviors.”

Holding onto his award for All the Way, Bryan Cranston reflected on the responsibility of artists in using their platform for good. “We’re human beings and citizens before we ever became actors and activists or artists of any kind. If something is important to you, if something appears before you in a way that feels pressing, it’s up to the citizenry to speak up,” Bryan Cranston said, echoing Paulson. “Not everybody agrees, but that’s part of the democracy. In so many countries around the world, you’re not even allowed to voice objections.”

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Stewart Cook/WWD/REX/Shutterstock (8137130ar) Bryan Cranston The 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, Press Room, Los Angeles, USA - 29 Jan 2017

With all the doom and gloom in the room tonight, Cranston emphasized also the importance of staying positive, and seeing the good in the works of art being celebrated this evening. “There’s a lot of strife in the world and in our country, but I think it’s important to embrace the good things that we have as well, and the collective of creative people coming together and talking about the issues, which you’ve seen tonight. It’s alive,” he said. “This is what artists do best, taking the fear and putting it back into the work. Hopefully, that creates a groundswell of understanding and compassion. I don’t think it’s wrong to celebrate good work that has nothing to do with other things.”

Coming backstage after winning the Female Actor award for Limited Series for The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Sarah Paulson reflected on the impassioned speech she gave on stage, placing the focus on ACLU and encouraging those in the audience to make donations. “It wasn’t a tough decision to come up with what I wanted to say. I am not an immigrant, I was born here, so in terms of how I can speak from it from a personal perspective, it wasn’t available for me,” Paulson said. “I just wanted to have an opportunity to mention the inclusivity that I think is required right now. The ACLU, to me, represents that.”

“It’s an odd thing because this is a very celebratory time in my life and it’s dovetailing with a very interesting time with our country,” Paulson continued, echoing the sentiment of all of those backstage—equal parts excitement and anxiety. “It just feels like a grave time. I’m trying to find a place to put it where I can be celebratory. Even as I was getting ready tonight, as honored as I was, I felt the duality of the celebration and also the seriousness of people at JFK right now, at LAX.”
One journalist asked Paulson about her position in the public, and her role in contributing to the political discourse, something the actress views as a positive, though by no means necessary, contribution. “I don’t think anyone should feel pressured to do anything about anything. I do think silence is not golden at this particular time. If you have a platform and a place to say it and you can reach further, you should take the opportunity. But I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re failing if they’re not doing it,” the actress said.
Rounding out the night was the cast of Orange is the New Black, celebrating the diversity found in the sprawling cast of their Netflix series. “I think we reflect reality and that we live on Carl Sagan’s big blue dot, and love will conquer all this. If they’re gonna lock up Muslims, they’re going to lock up all of us,” cast member Lori Petty said. “Art is going to be very important the next four years.”

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