02/28/2011 11:24 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Freedom to Make Art, from Oscar to Junot


As the proud daughter of a film editor, I don't aim to poo-poo even the more flagrant self-congratulatory nature of awards season. It's Hollywood, it's the Oscars, and Kirk Douglas might not get another chance up there in this lifetime, so he'll take his sweet time flirting with Anne Hathaway and we'll let him.

But as a human rights activist for writers imperiled for their choice to put pen to paper, my ears were perked for any mention of the great freedom participants in the 83rd Oscars have enjoyed to pursue their craft.

Enacting artistic expression and the chance to collaborate with like-minded talent in order to do so is the stuff of every day for the great cinematic powerhouse that is Hollywood. The Oscars are a night for celebrating the fact that movies are made by hundreds of people, not just their leading man or lady -- and it should also be a night for celebrating the fact that all of those people exercise daily the freedom to practice their art: costume design, cinematography, screenwriting, acting...

We have, of course, Oprah Winfrey to thank for the closest comment made on last night's Oscars to acknowledging that freedom; in her introduction to the award for Best Documentary she cited that some films take us away from our daily woes even while these documentary filmmakers "wouldn't let us escape." Problems loom indeed, outside the opalescent bubble in which a glittering whirl of costume change and the faddish return of the '50s side-part run the show.

Good Night, and Good Luck might be the most recent film to shed contemporary light on that era in the 1950s when Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee closed in on many a free-thinking artistic Americans, from poet George Oppen (who lived with a revoked passport in Mexico with his wife and daughter for many years before returning to the USA and, you know, just winning the Pulitzer Prize for literature) to dozens of people working in films in Hollywood. It was a bleak time and, watching Anne Hathaway toss her lustrous hair and James Franco level his handsome, squinting, stoner gaze at the camera, it's hard to fathom that it wasn't too long ago.


Screenwriters were those most often and heavily targeted during the McCarthy Era, arguably the most dangerous time for American freedom of expression in the 20th century. Writers, of course, have a special power, one which is quite threatening to oppressive governments: the power to use, shape, and mold that most hot-iron thing, the word, to spread cultural messages and expose political lies and mistreatment. When the going gets rough and the government gets scary, there's a reason writers are the first to go.

That's why taking in last night's resplendent Academy Awards ceremony put me in mind of a less opulent affair: the Associated Writing Program's annual conference earlier this month in Washington, D.C. It was at the Marriott, sure, but there was no orchestra sailing around on wheels, especially not at the kinds of forums I frequented. Perhaps fifteen people, for instance, attended the "Writers Respond to Global Trauma" panel, and maybe twenty attended the "Celebrating 50 Years of Freedom to Write Advocacy" panel.

To be fair, Joyce Carol Oates or someone was probably reading at the same time; every literary celebrity except perhaps Salman Rushdie was at that thing -- and one of those celebrities even pointed out the emperor's nudity by getting up to the podium, squinting at the sea of adoring fans, and saying, "Man, y'all are white."

That would be Junot Diaz, who, like Oppen, won the Pulitzer, but who thankfully has not been politically exiled for his subversive ideas. "I couldn't read a story, poem, or newspaper where I saw a Dominican kid reflected back in any way," Diaz said after his reading. "I write to leave mirrors for the future... It's not an accident that mythological monsters have no reflections. If a human being grows up in a world without reflections of them, they themselves will grow up to be monsters."

Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi seconded Diaz's sentiment perhaps without knowing it when she spoke during the Freedom to Write panel about writers facing imprisonment and torture for choosing to practice art: "If you've ever been in those conditions," she said emphatically, "you know the first thing they want to do is make you feel that you are alone. And writing is the very opposite of this.

"Truth is always offensive," Nafisi continued. "Writing is about the genuine desire to be in another's skin, about empathy."

Ah, empathy. And what word could come closer to describing the central tenant of the talent Natalie Portman and Colin Firth accepted awards for this evening? Barack Obama may have come under fire in 2009 for using "The E Word" to describe his decision-making process about Supreme Court appointments, but last night wasn't about the White House -- not directly, at least. Last night was about Hollywood, where somehow, both empathy and self-congratulation reign at once, where amid the flash and sparkle of millions of dollars' worth of borrowed diamonds and scores of silken gowns there may have rustled the murmur of something deeper -- that of a community of artists free to remind each other they are not alone, free to do what they do.