When Kerry Washington invited the head of the country’s preeminent civil rights organization to speak about the group to a roomful of Hollywood’s most powerful people, executive director Anthony Romero balked: “I don’t talk to a lot of people in the entertainment business — I run the ACLU.”
After his initial resistance, Romero agreed to share the stage with the “Scandal” star at a recent diversity summit at the Montage Laguna Beach. The CAA-sponsored conference attracted studio heads Donna Langley of Universal and Kevin Tsujihara of Warner Bros.; showrunners like Shonda Rhimes; as well as directors such as J.J. Abrams and Ava DuVernay.
The unlikely pairing of an A-lister like Washington and 51-year-old Stanford-educated attorney Romero, who is more used to formulating constitutional arguments than schmoozing celebrities, underscores the growing symbiotic relationship between Hollywood and the ACLU in the Trump era.
Washington’s production company has teamed up with the filmmakers behind the “Weiner” documentary to chronicle the ACLU’s advocacy as it works furiously to beat back the president’s controversial policies. Over the last eight months, Romero and other ACLU leaders have seen an unparalleled groundswell of support from the entertainment industry, which largely backed Hillary Clinton during the election. In some ways, the dejection at Trump’s surprise electoral victory has motivated entertainers to channel their political activism and energy through other means. Many naturally turned to a nonprofit with nearly a century-long track record defending and winning major civil rights cases.
These days, Vicki Fox, the Hollywood liaison for the ACLU of Southern California, says she can hardly keep up with the number of celebrities eager to help, noting that before the election, she sometimes struggled to have her calls returned. Tom Hanks, Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin were among stars who hosted a Facebook Live telethon last fall. The current political mood also permeated 2016’s awards season. At the Oscars, celebrities including model Karlie Kloss, “Hamilton” playwright and star Lin-Manuel Miranda and “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins showed solidarity with the organization, affixing blue ACLU ribbons to their outfits. And in what became one of several political statements during awards season, Sarah Paulson made a rare fundraising plea, urging viewers to donate to the ACLU during her SAG acceptance speech.
Direct contributions from the entertainment industry have totaled $1.3 million since the election, compared with $100,000 during a typical period in recent years. Celebrities have hosted parties at their homes to benefit the organization. Pop singer Sia was among several celebs who offered to match fan donations. Her fundraising pledge spurred $200,000 in fan contributions, eventually raising more than $300,000 after she personally gave $100,000.
ACLU membership rolls have swelled to north of 1 million, surpassing their previous peak of 500,000 during the George W. Bush years. Online donations in a single weekend totaled $24 million, filling ACLU coffers six times over its yearly fundraising average for online contributions.
And while the financial support pays for the staff attorneys to research and draft lawsuits and defend clients pro bono, the visibility of stars like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman and others is a key component of the close-knit relationship between Hollywood and the ACLU. The civil rights organization can tap into an industry with deep pockets and an expansive reach among the fan bases of diverse stars that count themselves as ACLU activists.
“Hollywood is critical,” Romero tells Variety. “They set trends. They change opinions. They talk directly to constituents and fans and the public. We can win in the courts, and we can fight in the state legislatures, but if we are not battling for hearts and minds, we can win the battle but lose the war.”
But some in Hollywood wonder if the entertainment industry, long a haven for liberal ideology, is further fueling the country’s deep political polarization by so firmly aligning itself with an organization decried for decades as left-leaning. President George H.W. Bush in 1988 effectively derided Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, who had boasted of being a “card-carrying member of the ACLU,” leading to the first television advertising campaign by the ACLU’s Southern California affiliate featuring Burt Lancaster defending the organization’s work.
Marty Kaplan, director of USC’s Norman Lear Center and chief speechwriter for Vice President Walter Mondale, says past effort by opponents to frame support for constitutional principles as “extreme or out of the mainstream has long been a weapon very effectively wielded by the right.”
Kaplan explains that for generations, the ACLU’s critics have used it as a proxy for being a “pinko,” a derisive term for leftists. Outspoken entertainers who may have avoided taking public political stances in the past are likely doing so now because of the severity of the threat they believe Trump poses, Kaplan says.
“They may feel this is the time of courage and conscience and standing up and being counted,” he says, adding: “The ACLU is a good vessel for a lot of those values.”
To Trump supporters, Hollywood’s criticism — including the universally condemned photo of Kathy Griffin holding a replica of Trump’s bloodied head — will further alienate a wide swath of the country’s film- and television-viewing audience.
For now, conservative backlash seems to have been trained on the news media, a popular punching bag for Trump and the Republican Party. That leaves leaders like Romero ample room to capitalize on the ACLU’s newfound popularity, working to corral as many celebrity ambassadors as possible for the cause.
“We have clients who would be better served by you all being their spokesperson than us,” Romero tells the room of nearly 200 in Laguna Beach. “We’ve deployed folks like you and others who have become celebrity ambassadors because you all carry a message to a different group of people than the one we can carry.”
Part elevator pitch, part history lesson, Romero’s appearance at the CAA conference came just a few months before the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on Trump’s travel ban. As the first executive director of ACLU who is Latino and openly gay, Romero explains how the organization’s attorneys had already filed nearly 90 lawsuits, including more than a dozen that challenge the travel ban. He made sure to point out to Washington and others that the work of finding plaintiffs, drafting legal arguments and filing lawsuits in multiple states isn’t just done magically.
For evidence, Romero points to the battles waged during his tenure and before. American presidents like George W. Bush and Barack Obama faced off with the ACLU over challenges to their policies, including interrogation of suspected terrorists under Bush and NSA surveillance under Obama. To Romero, however, Trump is a unique threat — a “one-man constitutional crisis,” as the ACLU chief has taken to referring to the new president.
What is a war for liberals and others who oppose Trump is nothing more than unfair and overly hostile attacks on Trump’s presidency, some conservatives say. What’s more, the ACLU’s challenge of Trump’s controversial travel ban makes the country less safe, Trump supporters say.
“It’s absolutely insane that we don’t have the right to know who’s here. I’ve never heard of such stupidity, and screw civil rights on this issue,” says Scott Baio, the “Happy Days” sitcom actor who scored a speaking slot at last year’s Republican National Convention. “Only liberals are looking to support the ACLU.”
David Cole, an organizer for Friends of Abe, a GOP social club for Hollywood entertainers, argues that Hollywood is taking a gamble by so stridently opposing Trump, much as the industry did a decade ago when it made antiwar films in reaction to U.S. combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“If Trump is legitimately unpopular with the public, then it makes perfect business sense to put out content that is anti-Trump,” Cole says. “It will alienate those Trump voters in those parts of the country where Trump is still popular, but Hollywood is always more focused on the coasts anyways.”
Perhaps reflecting the degree of political polarization, the ACLU has come under fire even by some on the left, including new members. The organization faced a torrent of social-media criticism when it stepped into the white-hot debate roiling the University of California, Berkeley over free-speech rights. The ACLU issued a statement in support of planned campus appearances by Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, angering liberals.
It’s no secret that the ACLU and Hollywood have been closely intertwined over the past several decades. The ACLU waged early legal battles over censorship and free-speech rights in the 1950s, eliciting the support of stars like Frank Sinatra, and the Rat Pack hosted benefits for the organization at black-tie dinners. The digital and social-media era, however, is prominently showcasing the reinvigorated relationship between the entertainment industry and the civil rights organization. The latest postelection high point has even created film-worthy moments of drama involving ACLU attorneys who would otherwise work inconspicuously.
When Trump’s administration in January abruptly rolled out a travel ban on visitors from several Muslim-majority countries, a swarm of activists and lawyers, including some from the ACLU, mobilized, racing to LAX airport to confront immigration authorities over the sudden detention of some arrivals. The organization filed several lawsuits in different states, occupying significant legal resources and forcing its staff attorneys to work overtime, sometimes overnight.
Despite the record pace of contributions, ACLU leaders worry that donations — key to waging battles in courts nationwide — could drop off. Romero and Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU’s Southern California chapter, have a deeper fear of what the heightened vitriol and outrage in American politics could lead to: cynicism.
“I’m worried about how long people can remain engaged at this fever pitch,” Villagra says. “It’s been five months, and it feels a lot longer than that.”
Gordon-Levitt, a staunch Fourth Amendment activist, draws similarities between Hollywood and politics and how each has contributed to the political divide gripping the country. “What Hollywood is really good at is emotions,” Gordon-Levitt says. “Movies are emotional things, for better or worse, on both sides of the political spectrum.”
The actor argues that political debates should be more even-keeled. “Proper discussion of the way that our government operates should be boring. It should be boring and rational. It shouldn’t make for good clickbait.”
As one of the ACLU’s most ardent supporters, Gordon-Levitt last year donated his acting fee from the 2016 film “Snowden,” in which he portrayed the former CIA contractor who exposed the extent of the government’s surveillance apparatus, earning him recognition from the ACLU. Following early court victories by opponents of the travel ban, Gordon-Levitt also treated the staff of the ACLU Southern California chapter to a catered bagel breakfast.
Actor and former “Daily Show” correspondent Aasif Mandvi believes the country’s political polarization can be masked by social media: “It’s very easy for us to live in a bubble. My Facebook feed is mostly probably filled with people who agree with most of my positions.” But the actor adds there’s a big difference in how liberals are reacting to Trump compared with how conservatives treated former President Obama.
“It’s not just about policy,” says Mandvi on the same day Trump teed off on Twitter against cable news hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinkski. “It’s dangerous in that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He doesn’t have the fundamental character. We have a crazy person in the White House.”
Some Hollywood figures have become new political activists, motivated by the same forces driving an emboldened resistance that has emerged to oppose Trump’s agenda.
Newly recruited ACLU ambassador and “Top Chef” star Padma Lakshmi says her background as an immigrant and a woman of color inspired her to expand her advocacy by giving a keynote address at an ACLU function. “I was terrified,” she recalls. “I speak in public all the time. In many instances to thousands and thousands of people, but I usually speak about paella, not politics.”
Villagra says the level of support and financial largesse is testing the organization in new ways. As he reflected on the ACLU’s future, he was heartened by the lessons its leaders can draw from the organization’s history. “We are really preparing ourselves to be able to fight for, at least these first four years, very pitched battles on a number of really important issues to us and to our community,” Villagra says. “Legal power is critical when you have so few political options available to you.”