Stars weigh in on awards show activism, like black dress codes, in Time’s Up era

TORONTO — From black dresses and Time’s Up pins, to impassioned speeches and white roses — this awards season has been filled with women’s empowerment activism in various forms.

Many in the industry say they support the use of such solidarity symbols on the red carpet and onstage at awards galas, feeling they are making an impact.

“Use every platform you have to address injustice, is my perspective,” says “Black Panther” star Danai Gurira, who founded the non-profit organization Love Our Girls, which focuses on female equality and empowerment.

“I’m extremely excited about this point in time for artists, for people who believe in a better America, that this an opportunity to have voices heard,” adds Veena Sud, Toronto-born creator of the new Netflix series “Seven Seconds.”

Change only comes when you bring it to people’s attention and an awards show is a “perfect vehicle” for that, notes “Kim’s Convenience” star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who’s nominated for a 2018 Canadian Screen Award.

“It’s just being frank and open and willing to discuss and acknowledging it, because when you try to hide a problem, when you try to sidestep it, all you’re doing is you’re perpetuating the same mechanisms that have kept it hidden for so long,” Lee says.

But some also worry that the message behind such attention-getting measures can be weakened if they’re trotted out so often in a short period of time.

“I don’t want to take the stance of, ‘Don’t speak your mind,’ because screw that, I do that all the time,” says Thomas Middleditch, the Nelson, B.C.-born star of the series “Silicon Valley” and the new film “Entanglement.”

“But at the same time, I worry a constant sort of soapbox mentality breeds a lot of fatigue and a lot of pushback — because not everyone is onboard, not everyone thinks that’s the right thing to do.”

And those who don’t follow the pack sometimes face backlash.

Frances McDormand, star of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge made headlines recently when they didn’t abide by the Time’s Up black-dress code at the British Academy Film Awards.

“A lot of people glom onto the movement, because if you don’t say anything you get negative points,” says Middleditch.

“It’s very popular to do it, and sometimes I think to a lot of people it feels disingenuous. So it’s tricky…. I think there’s probably a happy balance.”

The Oscars do have a history of being used for protest or political statements.

In 1973, activist Sacheen Littlefeather got onstage to say Marlon Brando would not be accepting his Academy Award due to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” In 1993, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins wore red ribbons to support people living with HIV and mentioned the cause onstage. In 2003, Michael Moore used his speech after winning the best documentary feature Oscar for “Bowling for Columbine” to speak out against the just-launched war in Iraq. Director Spike Lee and actors Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith boycotted the show in 2016 as part of the #oscarssowhite movement, and last year, there were plenty of references to the politics of U.S. President Donald Trump.

“If you’re going to do it, do it in a socially responsible way. Don’t trivialize it. It should be a civil discourse and that’s the important thing,” says J. Miles Dale, the Oscar-nominated Toronto producer of “The Shape of Water.”

“Sometimes it’s teetering on the edge of piling on, but I feel like it’s likely going to happen because it’s on the minds of people. And I think that those people who are up there feel that it’s their responsibility to say something, and if they feel that, then they’ve earned their time in the sun and you can do whatever you want with your moment.”

But Toronto-born actor-producer Jennifer Podemski feels the best activism is done “face to face” and not just on the red carpet.

“I think if your activism begins and ends with wearing a pin or writing a hashtag, I don’t think you’re doing enough work,” says Podemski, who will get an Award of Excellence at Saturday’s ACTRA Awards in Toronto, where the dress code is also black in solidarity with the Time’s Up movement.

“I just feel like I’d rather someone not wear the pin and not retweet on behalf of a movement and actually do the work, either on themselves, within their families, in their communities. That’s really where it’s the most meaningful. And I would hate for people to think that because you’re not a celebrity, that you can’t make change.”

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