Not since the civil rights movement, when stars like Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr. led marches and protest rallies, have so many black Hollywood denizens actively engaged in the political process.
In his bid for the presidency, Barack Obama has engaged a new cadre of African-American celebrities, drawn to his campaign’s themes of change, hope and cooperation.
“This election is very important to my future, my children’s future and the future of all Americans,” says actress Sheryl Lee Ralph. “That is why I am deeply committed to using whatever power that I bring as a celebrity to support Obama’s candidacy, because I sincerely believe that his vision will make a difference in the direction of America.”
At the Democratic National Convention in late August, Denver’s Invesco Field was packed with black Hollywood A-listers such as Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker, Danny Glover and Chris Rock, publicly showing their support for Obama’s historic candidacy. On the campaign trail, actors Kerry Washington, Rosario Dawson and Hill Harper have been traveling the country to promote voter registration and canvass voters to make sure they get to the polls on Election Day.
Since the days of Paul Robeson and Lena Horne, black celebrities have leveraged their public stature as a currency to promote political causes. But the chance to rally around a black candidate—and one who embodies the post-civil rights experience of so many of the stars involved—is an opportunity, it seems, many celebrities cannot pass up.
Today’s political activism by black celebrities has also benefited greatly from the high-tech age, in which stars can participate not just on the campaign trail but also via YouTube, e-mail blasts, podcasts and music video endorsements. “I encourage my clients to lend their time and resources in support of the political candidates and social charities that they believe in,” says top entertainment publicist Lisa Sorensen , who represents Venus Williams and Malinda Williams, among others. “As long as it’s an issue that they are really passionate about, I think it creates a win-win on both sides.”
To fully appreciate the relationship between celebrities and politicians takes an understanding of their shared goals. “The careers of actors and politicians depend on maintaining a favorable relationship with the public, so it’s no surprise that the two would be bedfellows,” says political consultant Toya Watts. “If an actor can expand their base by lending their supporting a popular candidate or platform, then it benefits everyone’s bottom line.”
Of course, taking an active stance on behalf of a political candidate requires real work, and not many in Hollywood are willing to give the time necessary to produce real results. Hill Harper is one of a core group of Obama supporters whose commitment extends beyond occasional campaign shout-outs to real, shoe-leather work. “Right now, the world is at such a great crossroads with a crisis on nearly every front—culturally, economically and politically,” Harper said in a recent interview. “So I feel a strong responsibility to help improve things.”
For all the interest from black celebrities this year, star support can be a double-edged sword. Republicans have long painted Democratic Party ties to Hollywood as a sign that the party is out of touch with mainstream America. Undeterred, the Obama campaign has worked Tinseltown as hard as Allentown. And as the election draws nearer, it is increasingly bringing celebrities and “real folk” together. Singer John Legend, for instance, has been doing mini concerts and campaign events this week in his home state of Ohio, a swing state crucial to Obama’s chances for victory.