Anger and concern over President Trump’s immigration restrictions were still fresh in Hollywood’s mind Saturday night at the 69th Directors Guild of America Awards dinner, an event that quickly turned political — with DGA President Paris Barclay leading the charge.
“I would not be standing in this room on this stage if not for immigrants,” Barclay declared at the Beverly Hilton hotel, opening the show with the first of many denouncements of the Trump executive order that was suspended last week by a federal judge.
Praising a rich global film history without borders or travel bans, Barclay pointed out that many of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors were themselves immigrants and refugees, including Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang, who fled Nazi-occupied Europe for America in the 1930s.
As occurred at the 2017 Producers Guild Awards and Screen Actors Guild Awards, winners and presenters throughout the night made the most of their platform, placing a spectrum of urgent issues — President Trump’s executive order suspending refugee arrivals and banning entry to the U.S. from Iran and six other predominantly Muslim countries, the glaring lack of minority and women directors hired in the industry — in front of Hollywood’s director corps.
“La La Land” director Damien Chazelle, winning his first DGA Award for directorial achievement in a feature film for the musical romance set in Los Angeles, lent his support to Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who because of the ban will not attend the 89th Academy Awards where his “The Salesman” is nominated “and comes from a country my government tells me I shouldn’t be in dialogue with,” Chazelle said.
“I wrote this movie six years ago in a very different time, in what seemed for me a more hopeful time in the world,” the Oscar front-runner added backstage. “I would hope that the movie gives some kind of hope.” Chazelle won the prize over “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins, “Manchester by the Sea’s” Kenneth Lonergan, “Arrival’s” Denis Villeneuve, and “Lion’s” Garth Davis.
Other winners included Ezra Edelman, who nabbed the documentary honors for his eight-hour nonfiction epic “O.J.: Made in America.” Davis took the prize for first feature film, Miguel Sapochnik won for dramatic TV series for his “Game of Thrones” episode “The Battle of the Bastards,” Becky Martin took the comedy prize for the “Veep” episode “The Inauguration,” and Steven Zaillian won for miniseries or movie with his “The Beach” episode of “The Night Of.”
Davis, who earned two DGA nominations for his fact-based drama about an Indian boy adopted by Australian parents seeking to bridge his two cultures, dedicated his prize to his young star, 8-year-old newcomer Sunny Pawar, but refrained from making overtly political statements onstage.
“I’m not confident enough to do that,” Davis told The Times ahead of the show. “I just let the film create the conversations.”
Nor did everyone approve of this year’s Oscar season’s transformation into a political forum.
“I don’t tell people who to vote for, and I get tired of Hollywood doing it. Get up there and be grateful that people love you, grateful that people voted for you, grateful for the award that you’ve received, and use your Hollywood activism off that stage,” said “Hercules” and “God’s Not Dead” star Kevin Sorbo, walking the red carpet in support of his upcoming faith-based feature directorial debut, “Let There Be Light.”
Fans tracking award shows to celebrate their favorite films and TV shows don’t want to hear political statements from inside the Hollywood bubble, he said.
“There’s a kickback, I think, from a big chunk of America saying, ‘Guys, that’s not your place,’” said Sorbo, describing the politicization of speeches by celebrities and filmmakers at the PGA Awards as “an overreaction” to Trump’s policies. “If they want to get political, go on MSNBC or CNN.”
DGA-nominated director Roger Ross Williams, whose documentary “Life, Animated” is also up for the Academy Award, argued in favor of speaking out when opportunity arises to bend the industry’s ear.
“I think it’s really important,” he told The Times, applauding Meryl Streep’s fiery anti-Trump speech at the Golden Globes. “My film is about someone with a disability and it’s important that people like Owen have a voice and a place in America, just like it’s important that I as a black gay man have a voice and a place in America. And if I ever get up there on stage, I’m going to say that.”
“It’s about including everyone in the world, in life, as part of the American dream and the American experience,” added Williams, who also sits on the motion picture academy’s board of governors. “I don’t think it’s political to say that someone with a disability deserves the same rights as everyone else. Or someone who is gay, or that a person of color deserves the same rights as everyone else. To me that’s not politics — that’s a human right.”
Of course, not every filmmaker is so inclined. Accepting the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award, “Blade Runner” director Ridley Scott begged off delving into the fray. “There’s been a lot of talk about politics tonight and I’m best off not talking about it,” he told the audience.
For his part, documentary winner Edelman flashed back to the emotionally charged PGA ceremony late last month, where he won the producing award for his eight-hour ESPN Films documentary and acknowledged the strangeness of being at a glamorous awards show while anti-Trump demonstrations and civil unrest rocked the country.
“What was going on inside of me based on what was happening in the world that day compelled me to speak from a personal place,” he said. “But I don’t have a personal need or desire to do that as a rule. To be honest, I spent a lot of time working really hard making a film that says a lot about the country we live in. Not that we don’t all have our roles and responsibilities, but in many ways that’s what I have to offer.”
Tina Mabry, who won the DGA award for children’s program for her “American Girl Story — Melody 1963: Love Has to Win,” about an African American girl navigating racism in 1960s Detroit, delivered the night’s most powerful address, urging her peers to fight racial and social injustices that persist today.
“What we were looking at in  was not what America is supposed to look like in 2017, and it still does,” Mabry said after her win. “That was one of the most important things I wanted to get across in my speech.”
Mabry, part of an all-female roster of directors brought on by Ava DuVernay to direct OWN’s “Queen Sugar” TV series this year, also made a subtle but powerful point to bring LGBTQ rights and gay marriage to the fore on the DGA stage.
“I do love my wife and I don’t want that to end,” she explained. “Everybody belongs here. If you’re here, you are American or you deserve to have protection from our country, not to be villainized. Love and compassion is how we get there — not silence.”
The other issue on several minds was the recent report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University that found that fewer women landed in the director’s chair in 2016 than had in 2015, with female directors representing just 7% of the year’s top 250 highest-grossing films. The two-percentage-point drop from 2015’s numbers is a glaring setback in the face of increased conversation around Hollywood diversity.
The persistent theme of gender parity plaguing Hollywood’s directing ranks — including male-dominated bodies such as the DGA — was overshadowed by the more immediate political speechifying, but the issue was not completely ignored.
A comedy sketch filmed for the awards show featuring Jane Lynch, Tony Hale and Aisha Tyler took the lone direct shot at the DGA for its scarcity of women members, calling it “more of a sausage fest than a Republican convention discussing reproductive rights.”
Onstage, presenters and winners were more diplomatic. Producer and unit production manager Marie Cantin, receiving the DGA’s Frank Capra Award from “Terminator” and “The Walking Dead” producer Gale Anne Hurd, called for gatekeepers to give more opportunities to underrepresented directors.
On the DGA red carpet, Barclay pointed to the organization’s various women-centric initiatives and put the onus on producers and executives with hiring power.
“It’s not a question of them being ready, because the women are ready to take the reins,” the DGA president told The Times. “It’s a question of whether the producers are really going to give them the same chances they give to many white male directors. So we’re publicly taking it to the barricades and saying, ‘How long can you continue to ignore that you have a huge talent pool of successful people who can make movies that will make money for you, that you’re not using? How long can you ignore that?’ I do think next year in the television field you’ll see a change. But feature film is still resistant and it’s getting to be very upsetting.”