Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Ossie Davis are some of the biggest African-American celebrities of all time. They were also huge civil rights supporters and had a hand in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Purdue University Associate Professor and Author of “Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life” Kathryn Cramer Brownell said the link between celebrities and politics has a long and storied history.
“One of the things that I found is that Hollywood studio executives first understood that it was good business to foster political relationships for when they faced questions of censorship, when they faced tax questions, and when they faced questions about antitrust,” Brownell said. “Having good relationships with politicians could help them navigate those business interests, to their benefit.”
Over the decades the entertainment industry and politics seem to go hand in hand. In the 1930s, that partnership was mostly between studio executives and politicians but in the civil rights era things changed.
“The Civil Rights Movement is a great example of how Hollywood celebrities themselves, not just studio executives built relationships,” Brownell said. “The relationship between Hollywood in politics in the 1920s and 30s, was overwhelmingly about studio executives cultivating relationships with presidential administrations from Hoover to Roosevelt. What you see happen in the 60s is a shift in the business model of Hollywood that gives celebrities more power in terms of their individual image.”
Thanks to that new found freedom, stars like Bellafonte, Poitier and Davis had more control over their personal image and could pursue interests outside of the studios. The biographical documentary film “Sing Your Song” chronicles Belafonte’s contribution to and his leadership in the civil rights movement in America and his endeavors to promote social justice globally.
“Once they were free from the studio systems and able to assert themselves more openly in terms of the issues that are important to them many celebrities became very involved in the civil rights movement,” Brownell said. “They were really essential to raising money, very much needed money for the civil rights movement as well. Stars like Harry Belafonte became leaders within the movement. Later he was able to foster a relationship with John F. Kennedy and advocate for very specific policies in terms of fair housing in particular.”
The “Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life” author said the Hollywood political connection was put on notice during the 2016 elections.
“You saw Hollywood very much mobilized,” she said. “Many had a strong connection to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and we’re very involved in it. Although I would also emphasize that, you know, on the other side of the aisle, Donald Trump is a celebrity himself and used the power of celebrity to his own political advantage.”
Brownell noted celebrities are flexing their political muscle more and more these days.
“I suspect that celebs will continue to use the star power they bring to any campaign events, to raise awareness for particular candidates and again to serve that really key fundraising role,” she said. “Because Hollywood has been a really central component of how the Democratic Party has fundraised since the 1960s. Where we go from here is really important.”