The room was already electric when Vice President Joe Biden stepped onto the Oscars stage Sunday night and gave an impassioned speech about reducing sexual assault on college campuses. He then introduced Lady Gaga, who performed a rousing rendition of "Til It Happens to You," the Oscar-nominated song she and Diane Warren wrote about sexual assault on college campuses for the Kirby Dick documentary "The Hunting Ground."
And then it happened: A group of about 50 women and men entered the stage flanking Gaga at a white piano. With messages of "We believe you," "It's on us" and "Unbreakable" written on their exposed arms, survivors of sexual assault joined the songstress. They locked hands and rose them in triumph.
The crowd rose to its feet, countless eyes swelling with tears.
"Tonight’s performance is about giving a voice to the many victims of sexual assault and their families around the world," said Warren in a statement released after the performance. "We are honored to represent so many survivors and hope. 'Til It Happens To You' empowers those watching to get involved and become part of a solution.”
The stories of sexual assault survivors took center stage in multiple ways on Oscars Sunday. In addition to being the subject of "The Hunting Ground" and the Gaga-Warren track, it is also examined in "Room," which won Brie Larson the lead actress Oscar, and "Spotlight," which took home the night's biggest award for best picture.
In "Room," the character played by leading lady Brie Larson is also a sexual assault survivor, as imagined by novelist Emma Donoghue, kidnapped and kept captive in a backyard shed for seven years.
"Spotlight," which focused on the Boston Globe investigative reporting team that unearthed sexual abuse committed by priests, used its heightened awards-season media platform to bring attention to the issue. The film's producers hosted screenings for abuse survivors in the lead-up to the Oscars, and just hours before the Academy Awards on Sunday, star Mark Ruffalo, director Tom McCarthy and the film's writer Josh Singer joined a protest and march in downtown Los Angeles for abuse survivors.
"I'm here to stand with the survivors and the victims and the people we've lost from Catholic priest childhood sex abuse," Ruffalo told protesters.
The protest, organized by the group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, was one of 20 rallies that day urging greater transparency at Catholic cathedrals across the nation.
Phil Saviano, a clergy-abuse survivor and whistleblower portrayed in the film by Neal Huff, has been a visible part of "Spotlight's" campaign and attended the Oscars ceremony. He said the film's win makes his fight for transparency and accountability within the Catholic Church worthwhile.
"It's one thing to have [the story] out in the news; it's another to have it out in Hollywood," he said. "This movie is going to be shown all over the world, so this really helps."
Vice President Biden has been on a national tour discussing sexual assault, particularly on college campuses, since the White House launched the "It's On Us" campaign in 2014. Its goal is to reframe the conversation around sexual assault. From the Academy Awards stage, Biden implored onlookers to make a pledge.
"Tonight, I'm asking you to join millions of Americans, including me, President Obama, the thousands of students I've met on college campuses, and the artists I've met here tonight to take the pledge — a pledge that says, 'I will intervene in situations when consent has not or cannot be given,'" he said. "Let's change the culture. We must change the culture, so that no abused women or man, like the survivors you will see tonight, ever feel they have to ask themselves, 'What did I do?' They did nothing wrong."
In addition to the moving moments onstage, Larson was met backstage after receiving her Oscar by the lot of Gaga performers who screamed and pumped their fists for her.
"Give us a hug!" they said to the actress.
"Yes, yes, yes!" Larson said, rushing into their arms. "I feel like I'm on fire right now!"
The actress hugged every single survivor.
Times reporters Rebecca Keegan, Steven Zeitchik and Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.
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