Election Results Spur New Wave of Activism in Hollywood

Debra Birnbaum
Variety

As the reality of Donald Trump’s presidency sets in, a new wave of activism has taken hold in Hollywood. Mourning over Hillary Clinton’s loss has given way to soul-searching and a renewed sense of commitment. From organizing protests and forming action groups to harnessing social media as a megaphone, actors are becoming activists — using their celebrity status to draw crowds and attention to progressive causes.

“Since the election I’ve had so many people reach out to me expressing their feelings of frustration,” says filmmaker Ryan Piers Williams, who’s married to America Ferrera. “The one consistent question I kept getting is, ‘What can I do? How can I take action?’ ”

Williams reached out to leaders across various communities — LGBTQ, black, Latino, Muslim, women, native American — to find out which organizations are making a difference right now. His strategy? Create a website as a hub for people to learn more, and to provide immediate opportunities to take action through donations of time or money. The result — Harness.space — lists a range of causes, from the Trevor Project and the ACLU to supporting Louisiana Democratic Senate candidate Foster Campbell in his run-off election Dec. 10.

The site is pared down and simple, with little sense of the celebrity muscle powering it. “I see it as down-and-dirty activism,” says Williams. “There’s nothing glamorous about it. I’m just trying to offer a tool for people to be inspired, to funnel their energy to positive change with the issues that they care about.”

The response, he says, has been unprecedented — far more than he ever expected. He credits the reaction to concerns about the incoming administration. “Right now there are a lot of unknowns about what Donald Trump’s presidency will be,” he says. “There are a lot of people who are being affected by some of the rhetoric that he’s already put out into the world, which is making a lot of communities very vulnerable.”

Getting Involved:
A sheriff’s deputy arrests Shailene Woodley at an October protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP

Some of those vulnerable are undocumented immigrants — theirs is a cause that’s motivating actor Wilmer Valderrama to speak out. More than 750,000 people are in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) — issued under an executive order by President Obama — which is likely to be overturned in the new administration.

“People are talking about undocumented immigrants as if they were a percentage or a statistic,” says Valderrama. “They’re forgetting that they are people who didn’t have choices. And they’re forgetting who we are as a country.”

Valderrama, who has been sharing his own story as an immigrant from Venezuela on social media, wants to change the conversation from deportation to integration. “The question is how do we welcome these people who have been here,” he says. “How we do we integrate the people who have been here, in this country, providing vital services to this nation; how do we get them to a place where they can do it in a more inclusive manner, as a member of the national community.”

He sees the election as an opportunity. “It fueled a different spirit. It woke up a different beast,” he says. “We’ve got to make time for this. If not, we’re nearing a very rude awakening in our future.”

Hollywood’s progressives have been here before, particularly after the 2004 presidential election that saw Republicans controlling all branches of government. Activists mobilized around issues like Hurricane Katrina relief and the quagmire in Iraq.

The Nov. 19 edition of “Saturday Night Live” made headlines after President-elect Trump took to Twitter to express his displeasure with the way he was depicted in the show’s opening segment. “It is a totally one-sided, biased show — nothing funny at all,” tweeted Trump. “Equal time for us?”

But in the show’s final moments, host Kristen Wiig made a quiet, more powerful stand. “Please stand with Standing Rock,” she said, pointing to the message emblazoned on her T-shirt. Protestors have been challenging the Dakota Access Pipeline for months, but national attention to the issue has ramped up as construction enters its final stages, threatening permanent damage to Native American sites.

Singer-songwriter Joan Baez, too, got behind the cause: During her recent concert at Disney Hall, she sported a shirt that read “Nasty Woman” on the front, and “NO — DAPL” on the back.

“I’m as guilty as anyone for sending out a bunch of snarky tweets and doing a lot of talking and not a lot of walking in the lead-up to the election.”
Beau Willimon, “House of Cards” creator

The protest has galvanized celebrities who’ve taken to social media to voice their support, including Shailene Woodley, Katy Perry, and Patton Oswalt. “I just visited the @Standing Rock gift registry,” tweeted Oswalt. “Now they have a laptop, drone & a wind turbine. HO-HO-HO.”  Jamie Lee Curtis posted that the “Scream Queens” cameraman was en route to help the Sioux tribe document their actions.

Debra Messing donated to the cause as well; she chipped in propane tanks. “It’s a protest, not a war zone,” she posted. “Tell DoJ to stop militarized response to nonviolent #NoDAPL protestors.” The actress has also turned her Twitter feed into a platform for her political point of view, from promoting petitions banning Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon as his chief strategist to support of a vote recount in Wisconsin and retweets of articles about Russia’s undue influence in the election.

But for Beau Willimon, creator of “House of Cards,” the election proved a realization that he needed to do more than simply sit behind his computer. “I’m as guilty as anyone for sending out a bunch of snarky tweets and doing a lot of talking and not a lot of walking in the lead-up to the election,” he says. “I did some things, but I didn’t do the most basic things, which is to motivate others on a regular basis to get involved.”

So he has launched the Action Group Network, a nationwide collection of politically motivated groups focusing on issues large and small. Using his own network of contacts and Twitter followers, he has gotten responses from thousands of people in 40 states. “The basic principle here is encouraging and facilitating a culture of action,” he explains — be it the local level, with school-board elections, or the national level. “The more our citizenry is engaged in that sort of behavior, the more cumulatively it will move our country in a progressive direction and help us prevent some damaging policy and legislation to come.”

Although he has a “day job” as a producer, he’s spending the next month traveling across the country to do meet-ups and help organize groups. “I think I have a certain skill set in motivating people to act, and act quickly,” he says. “If I have any platform or ability, because of the success I’ve had, to be able to encourage people or facilitate or help in any way to get people — not just in my own community, but people across the country — to get active, then I damn well better do it. Because when you don’t, you get what happened a couple Tuesdays ago.”

Willimon is confident of his ability to effect change. “There is no time like the present. The present we are in is scary to a lot of people. The future doesn’t have to be, if we work our asses off.”

Ted Johnson contributed to this report.

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