On Sunday evening, actress Viola Davis won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her stellar performance in Suicide Squad. Oh, sorry, for her stellar performance in Fences. She then gave a speech that had the media gushing. The Washington Post called it “amazing.” Huffington Post said it stole the show. It prompted tweets like these:
So, what did she say? Here was the important part:
Thank you Academy. You know, there’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place. And that’s the graveyard. People ask me all the time: ‘What kind of stories do you want to tell Viola?’ And I say exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big, and never saw those dreams to fruition. People who fell in love and lost. I became an artist and thank God I did because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.
Art is wonderful; art is enriching; art can connect us with each other. But the utter arrogance of stating that artists are “the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life” is astounding. How about doctors? How about stay-at-home mothers, who help shape lives rather than pursuing their own career interests? How about morticians? How about pretty much everybody in a free market economy, giving of themselves to others to improve lives?
One of the most galling aspects of the Oscars is the tremendous self-centeredness of the event: people who are rich and famous congratulating other people who are rich and famous on how important they are. Jimmy Kimmel’s constant stream of jokes about Donald Trump didn’t help — it merely underscored that Hollywood sees itself as morally elevated, and awards itself virtue on the basis of its views of the universe rather than the good that it does. It’s what was also galling about the Jimmy Kimmel routine in which he welcomed ordinary people – you know, the rubes! – straight from the Hollywood bus into the theater. What a privilege for them to get to hobnob with the truly special people! It would have been much more honest and moving for Kimmel to usher the actors, producers, and writers of Hollywood into those people’s workplaces so they could see how the other half lives rather than patronizing them.
Viola Davis is right that art celebrates life, which is why we love it. It makes the particular general. But she’s dead wrong that artists are special in this way. Most people won’t have movies made about them. But their lives still matter. They aren’t forgotten by those who knew them, loved them, and were shaped by them.