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Put a Face on It

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An unusual number of films nominated for Oscars this year deal with real people, real histories, and real dilemmas. Artists brought the tools of big screen virtuosity, humor, beauty and sometimes brutality to images fished from the real world.

At the same time, critics and members of the casual public asked that filmmakers be guardians of fact and responsible for the impact of their fiction. Interestingly, this movement dovetailed into calls for Hollywood to speak up about its role in gun violence.

That artists are called to be more responsible and "true" is a tip of hat to their power.

We walked into theaters embracing popcorn.

We came out embracing the tumble of politics. Lincoln gave us the elegance of political language rendered by Spielberg, Kushner and groundbreaking performances.

We came out with empathy for mental illness. Silver Linings Playbook revealed the Man in the Mirror. We are all nuts. Stigma and asylum are not the only option. Friendship is a wildly underrated medication.

We came out pondering forgiveness and kindness. Watching Les Miserables, figures in both large and small enterprises may have gotten the courage to inspire a regeneration of the moral imagination that comes and goes in a winner-take-all society.

We came out confronting the way we confront terrorism. Zero Dark Thirty attracted serious attention because it put a face on torture. "That's not America" it's argued. The Oscars are upon us, and the vote is out on that.

In the same season, Django animated unimaginable torture that occurred in America's past, and by spinning a different narrative about slavery, Quentin Tarantino suggests that we haven't learned all we can about the misdeeds that are justified under power's cloak.

We came out touched by the scourge of poverty in America. The creators of Beasts of the Southern Wild chose mythology over pathology by turning the camera toward a poor community making ends meet by fishing with their own, often drunken, hands.

Hushpuppy, a skinny six year old running around in underpants and perfectly unkempt hair, is surely classifiable as "among America's most vulnerable." Yet, in her vulnerability resides power, muscle and joy.

Real histories, real worlds grabbed a hold of us as artists engaged in public conversation like never before.

I find myself wondering what could happen next, in real reality -- in city halls and halls of Congress once Seth McFarlane says goodnight on Sunday.

Movies, as evidenced by a chorus of protesting and celebrating Americans, influence broader trends.

Both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty put an attractive face on public service. Chastain put a glamorous face on it and Affleck a loveable one. Remember the cool nonchalance of Chastain's explanation of how she came to the CIA: "I was recruited out of High School"?

The situation for Affleck's character at the end of Argo suggests that service well executed may bear no face at all. He is told he will be honored, but he can't bring his own son to the ceremony.

Will folks sign up and suit up because making a difference looked pretty cool on Chastain and Affleck?

Could the last ten years of "everybody is a star" possibly morph into "anonymity could be productive"?

Will a philanthropist, attempting to remedy our disgraceful school drop-out and push-out rate, get inspiration from six-year-old Quevenzhane Wallis?

Will early childhood experts seeking to bridge the achievement gap give fun a try? Or are poor children destined to fasten seat belts and learn math or else?

By the way, imagine what would happen to a real Hushpuppy who tried to burn down a house. I don't fault Beasts' filmmakers for being unrealistic and romantic.

I am encouraged that they turned the lens on love in the Bathtub, because even tough love has been squeezed out of discipline in poor communities. We need it back.

At this moment, the arts revealed our national politics, our ills and our triumphs. Could arts do yet more to influence our politics?

Imagine that Governor X in a State Y appoints an Artist in Residence for his/her entire term. This artist does not cover the statehouse with digital art. Nor does this artist necessarily fight to bring school choirs back. Too predictable.

What this artist could do is bring compassion to data and put faces on problems. Perhaps this artist could be the missing link in the disconnect between Washington and the people.

President Obama called for a "we" nation in his Inauguration Address. Art convenes. It is not just inspirational. It is aspirational. It pricks the walls of our compartmentalized minds, opens our hearts and makes us brave. And that's what we need most in our country today.