SAG Awards: A Night When Politics Trumped the Prizes Themselves

Glenn Whipp
Photo: Mark Boster (Los Angeles Times / TNS)
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

"This immigrant ban is a blemish and is un-American," said Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the evening’s first award recipient, getting the ball rolling.

LOS ANGELES — Anyone tuning in to the SAG Awards on Sunday thinking they might be escaping news headlines for a couple of hours was quickly disabused of that notion as winner after winner used the platform to speak out against President Donald Trump’s immigration ban.

“This immigrant ban is a blemish and is un-American,” said “Veep’s” Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the evening’s first award recipient, getting the ball rolling.

Later, life achievement honoree Lily Tomlin noted: “The doomsday clock has been moved up to two and a half minutes to midnight — and this award came just in the nick of time.”

Politics blended into the awards themselves, including the night’s biggest winner, “Hidden Figures,” a historical drama about the largely unknown black women who helped NASA launch the space program. The film’s predominantly black cast won for ensemble, and its message of women of color overcoming prejudice was a perfect fit with the mood at the Shrine Auditorium, where the SAG Awards were presented.

“This film is about unity,” “Hidden Figures” star Taraji P. Henson said of the movie, which tells the story of the black female mathematicians who helped put John Glenn into space. “When we come together as a human race, we win … love wins every time.”

Love wasn’t in the air when it came to Trump’s executive order that suspended entry of all refugees to the United States for 120 days, blocked Syrian refugees indefinitely and denied entry into the country for 90 days for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries. The controversy over the immigration ban continued to be front-and-center throughout the night.

In that respect, much like the previous two years when the #OscarsSoWhite controversy dominated the SAG Awards, this year’s ceremony was less about who won and more about what was said from the stage.

Some winners made explicit pleas (Sarah Paulson called for donations to the American Civil Liberties Union), some went on epic, ferocious rants (“Stranger Things” actor David Harbour, with an assist from co-star Winona Ryder’s facial expressions) and others, such as “Moonlight’s” Mahershala Ali, related their own experiences about the importance of valuing people’s differences.

Said an emotional Ali, who won for supporting film actor: “My mother is an ordained minister. I’m a Muslim. She didn’t do backflips when I called her to tell her I converted 17 years ago. But I tell you now, you put things to the side, and I’m able to see her and she’s able to see me. We love each other. The love has grown.”

And you didn’t even have to win (or present) an award to get in on the action. “Scandal” actress Kerry Washington tweeted: “Whoa. Lotta truth telling here at #SAGAwards”

Whether the dialogue was appreciated or appropriate will be left to viewers’ discretion. Backstage, Bryan Cranston, honored for his portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson in HBO’s “All the Way,” said speaking out against something that “appears before you in a way that feels like oppression” is “up to the citizenry.”

“The collective of people coming together and talking about the issues as you’ve seen tonight — it’s alive,” Cranston said.

As for the awards themselves, if last year’s ceremony was, in the words of two-time winner Idris Elba, a moment of “diverse TV,” this year’s slate was all that and then some, with three of the four individual prizes on the film side going to black actors (Ali; Denzel Washington and Viola Davis for “Fences”) and the aforementioned cast award going to “Hidden Figures.”

The “Hidden Figures” win gives the crowd-pleasing hit movie a boost a month before the Oscars ceremony on Feb. 26. Best picture front-runner “La La Land” won the Producers Guild’s top honor Saturday night, and its headlining actress, Emma Stone, took the SAG Awards’ lead actress prize. Damien Chazelle’s musical wasn’t nominated in SAG’s cast category, as it is mainly centered on the romance between Stone’s aspiring actress and a jazz pianist played by Ryan Gosling.

Washington’s win for his towering turn as the charming, troubled and dialogue-devouring storyteller in “Fences” adds a wrinkle to the lead actor Oscar race. Previously, Casey Affleck won the Golden Globe and countless critics prizes for “Manchester by the Sea.” But the actor has been dogged in recent weeks with media reports focusing on past allegations against him of sexual harassment.

Constance Wu, star of the ABC television comedy “Fresh Off the Boat,” took to Twitter shortly after Oscar nominations were announced, slamming voters who checked off Affleck’s name.

“He’s running for an award that honors a craft whose purpose is examining the dignity of the human experience & young women are deeply human,” she wrote.

Whether qualms over Affleck’s past had any impact — or if the 121,546 eligible SAG-AFTRA members who voted simply preferred Washington’s outsized acting over his inward turn — is difficult to know. (Or maybe it was simply Washington’s time. He was one of five actors with four SAG Awards nominations for leading actor in a film. The other four — Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Sean Penn — had won prizes.)

But Sunday’s win does give Washington momentum as we head into the awards season’s final lap. The last 12 actors to win SAG’s lead honor went on to take the Oscar.

That itself is enough to make Washington the favorite — even if, on this night of politics, he was one of the few who kept his expressions of gratitude on the traditional side — God, family and colleagues.


(Times staff writer Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.)

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