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Stranger Things, Indeed: Miraculously, the SAG Awards Was the Site of Joy and Vital Protest

The cast of Netflix’s hit ’80s drama won big and made a silly awards show seem bigger

(TNT)
(TNT)

You’d be forgiven for skipping Sunday’s Screen Actors Guild Awards, and not just because it’s a third-tier awards show. Bigger things were afoot in the world; two hours of actors giving awards to other actors felt beside the point. Depending on how you feel about the NHL All-Star Game (also in Los Angeles this Sunday), the SAGs were no better than the second-most important entertainment event happening in the city. And if I told you that the night’s most exciting moment came when the cast of Stranger Things received the award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series, you’d probably feel vindicated in having spent your night doing something else.

You’d be dead wrong.

I’ll admit that when Winona Ryder, all those kids in jewel-toned tuxes, Matthew Modine, and noted Talented Schlubby Actor David Harbour took the stage, I sighed. Good for them, I thought. Who cares? Up to this point, the night had been refreshing: Nearly all the winners had given speeches acknowledging the general gloominess outside the room. But then Harbour took to the mic and delivered a sermon: a bracing, rushed, red-faced blast, at once self-aggrandizing (acting is important) and deeply felt (acting is important).

The gist was that, in a time of political division and general discord, actors and TV shows and movies can help us practice empathy. Rich coming from the third adult lead on an ’80s-humping sci-fi show? Absolutely not. Gosh was Harbour something; he delivered the whole thing in what felt like a single breath. The relevant bit: "We will shelter freaks and outcasts, those who have no home. We will get past the lies. We will hunt monsters. And when we are at a loss amidst the hypocrisy and the casual violence of certain individuals and institutions, we will, as per Chief Jim Hopper, punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy what we have envisioned for ourselves and the marginalized." It was, easily, the biggest moment of the night. Coming in as a close second: Stranger Things costar Winona Ryder’s reactions in response to Harbour’s unspooling speech: Discomfort and confusion yielding to a cautiously raised fist and then full-fledged hollering. (Love you, Winona.)

That anything of worldly import happened at this affair would be a surprise. The SAG Awards are a navel-gazing Hollywood affair, even by awards show standards: The whole thing is just … actors celebrating other actors and giving speeches about the glory of the art in the process. But from the start, the focus was largely elsewhere. Ashton Kutcher introduced the show by addressing the audience along with "everyone in airports who belong in my America," beating his chest for emphasis. Sure, it was a little self-satisfied. But it was something.

The SAGs are a strange awards show for another reason, too: There’s no host, just a series of trophy presenters and recipients. No one to steer the ship — to make topical, piercing jokes or cringeworthy racist ones. The award winners stepped into the vacuum: Julia Louis-Dreyfus called Trump’s immigrant ban a "blemish" and "un-American." Sarah Paulson used her speech to ask for donations to the ACLU. Alia Shawkat gave the crowd a "Salaam alaikum." And Mahershala Ali brought the house down with an emotional, sensitive meditation on "what happens when you persecute people."

Ali’s mom is a minister, he explained; he’s Muslim, converted nearly two decades ago. "I’m able to see her; she’s able to see me. We love each other. The love has grown," he said, near tears. "And that other stuff is minutiae. It’s not important." Ali’s speech — Ali’s win — was also another sort of reminder: that roles like Ali’s in Moonlight and movies like Moonlight don’t come around as often as they should. By the time the cast of Hidden Figures closed the night with a win in Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, the evening’s narrative was clear: In both the awards given and the speeches that followed, the SAGs had steered straight into the political. By my count, all winners but one (along with a number of presenters) had made more than a passing reference to the world on fire outside. What else is there to talk about, really?

Well, this being the SAGs: the work itself. The actors and the acting. By way of an opening number, a series of stars — Kerry Washington, Jeff Bridges, Kutcher — delivered little monologues. "I am an actor," they each concluded. It sounds goofy. And mostly, it was. But Washington’s speech is worth dwelling on. SAG, you’ll recall, stands for Screen Actors Guild. It’s a union, and it’s built to protect all its members, from the stars down to the baristas. Less than 10 miles away from the show, thousands had swarmed Los Angeles International Airport to protest the White House’s travel ban on immigrants. LAX has been the site of other, more quotidian protests, too: Back in November, groups like Janitors for Justice and Fight for $15 led their own demonstrations. Back at the Shrine Auditorium, Kerry Washington connected the dots: Solidarity is the thing. She kept our gaze, but also directed it subtly outward. "Actors are activists no matter what, because we embody the worth and humanity of all people," she said. "This union helps me to do that."