Ryan Coogler's #MLKNOW Event Was The Pinnacle Of Art And Activism

It was a beautiful look at the past, present, and future of black Hollywood.
Michael B. Jordan delivering Fred Hampton's "Power Anywhere There's People" speech.
Michael B. Jordan delivering Fred Hampton's "Power Anywhere There's People" speech.
Noam Galai via Getty Images

Hollywood, please take note.

Yesterday, inside Harlem's historic Riverside Church, history was made. Ryan Coogler, director of "Creed" and founder of the activist collective Black Out For Human Rights, organized an inspiring array of black Hollywood talent to recite powerful speeches from Civil Rights heroes, in honor of Martin Luther King Day.

The event, called #MLKNOW, was not intended as an answer to the unbearable whiteness of Hollywood, but rather an opportunity to bring awareness to police violence, mass incarceration, and the need for systemic change. Still, it couldn't have been more poignantly timed. It came just one week after Oscar nomination announcements rekindled the #OscarSoWhite hashtag. It was, unintentionally, the perfect antidote to the complete lack of diversity of this year's noms.

Whether people of color should care about the Oscars is a tricky question. As Academy member David Oyelowo pointed out yesterday at a gala event, "I would like to walk away and say it doesn’t matter, but it does, because that acknowledgement changes the trajectory of your life, your career, and the culture of the world we live in.”

But on the other hand, how many times must this conversation happen before the industry gets it? For that reason, both Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith publicly declared that they are boycotting this year's Academy Awards.

"Begging for acknowledgement, or even asking, diminishes dignity and diminishes power," Pinkett said in a video message on Facebook. "And we are a dignified people and we are powerful. Let's do us, differently."

Tessa Thompson, Michael B.Jordan, and Anika Noni-Rose among the audience.
Tessa Thompson, Michael B.Jordan, and Anika Noni-Rose among the audience.
Jim Spellman via Getty Images

There's a huge difference between "begging" for acknowledgement, and demanding it as a right. To demand acknowledgement for our accomplishments is not to seek white validation.

But if it's really about doing us differently, as Jada advises, Ryan Coogler and his fellow founders and organizers of Blackout (including Ava DuVernay) have done something monumental. They've demonstrated the ways in which art and activism can intersect and make a powerful impact.

Watching the livestream of #MLKNOW on Monday evening was to watch an overwhelming expression of black excellence. Of black power. One by one, talented actors and musicians took to the podium to recite rousing, moving, and eerily relevant speeches from some of the greatest black minds of the last hundred years.

Chris Rock delivering James Baldwin's "A Letter To My Nephew"

It was a beautiful, shining look at the past, present, and future of black Hollywood. From Tessa Thompson's brilliant reading of Angela Davis's "Victory Speech," to Michael B. Jordan deftly channeling Fred Hampton, to Chris Rock reciting the words of James Baldwin, to the great, living legend Harry Belafonte, #MLKNOW was not only a vital celebration of black talent but an important wake-up call to those in Hollywood who give the same tired excuses every time the inevitable diversity conversation comes around.

No more excuses. No more, "well, there just weren't any black contenders this year." Not when on that stage alone were two actors who turned in some of the best performances of last year (Thompson, Jordan), and a director whose first two feature films have been near perfect (Coogler).

Boycotting the Oscars might be one way to get the message across, but what made #MLKNOW such a powerful response to Hollywood and kingmaking institutions like the Academy Awards was its dignified subtlety. Here were a dozen great black actors who were using their talent to effect real change in their own community and, while doing so, they called out the hypocrisy of Hollywood. Coogler and company proved that #OscarsSoWhite isn't just a ridiculous byproduct of Hollywood's exclusion of black talent -- it's Hollywood's greatest shame. And they did so, simply by existing in their brilliance.

Watch the whole thing here:

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