Last week was the 88th Oscars and the most used hashtag leading up to the event was #OscarsSoWhite. Chris Rock hosted the show amidst the controversy of a predominantly white listing of nominees using his jokes to talk about the white elephants in the room. All of this focus on Hollywood and its role in the great art of storytelling through film leads us into a discussion on opportunity and freedom.

Hollywood Signs and Meanings

When I moved to Los Angeles I was invited to go to a church that was located in downtown LA. I would see the Hollywood sign time and time again; and it soon became one of my favorite symbols. It’s not just me, the Hollywood sign is easily one of the most iconic symbols in America (and the world). Further, it is every bit as memorable as The Statue of Liberty located in New York and The Liberty Bell located in Philadelphia.
Whenever we see these larger than life symbols we are taken to very specific thoughts. We see issues and stories represented in these items. The Statue of Liberty reminds us of the countless stories of immigrants fleeing oppression to become citizens of a new nation. The Liberty Bell helps us remember the principles that helped found the USA. And the white Hollywood sign, many see this symbol and think of movie magic, the stars in the sidewalk, and the stars who are featured in the movies we love to watch, and the dreamers who so densely populate the city.
I would argue that each of the symbols: the statue, the bell, and the sign have liberty as their central theme. Liberty from oppressive places that inhibit a pursuit for a whole and flourishing life. Liberty is quickly and rightly equated with freedom; being free to act as one wishes without oppressive restrictions. And that takes us to the heart of the 2016 Oscars controversy… being free to act.


Chris Rock said in his opening monologue:

“Now the thing is, Why are we protesting? The big question: Why this Oscars? Why this Oscars, you know?It’s the 88th Academy Awards. It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole no black nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times. O.K.?”

Chris Rock is right; this problem of exclusion is an 88 year and older problem. This year there were a range of responses. With the #OscarsSoWhite as a backdrop, some were given reason to boycott the show and others took it as a reason to show up. If you had a ticket for the show or if you tuned into the Oscars you could’ve heard Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, say,

“The Oscars celebrates the storytellers who have the opportunity to work in the powerful medium of film. And with that opportunity comes responsibility, our audiences are global and rich in diversity and every facet of our industry should be as well. Everyone in the Hollywood community has a role to play in bringing about the vital changes the industry needs so that we can accurately reflect the world today.”


When we consider the impact of a well told story we discover that it can change the way we think and live. As I watched the Oscars I realized the deep role that film plays in our society. Through this art-form we have a way of approaching the big issues of life that allows for truth and hope to be held in tension. Through film we can be represented by a story that we know all too well and we can be sensitized to stories that we do not know anything about. Storytelling; a high calling indeed.

Now more than ever that Hollywood sign needs to be a renewed symbol of liberty. A strengthened symbol, marking a place in this world where unheard voices are not just heard but amplified through the powerful medium of film. Unheard voices telling unknown stories. And the golden Oscar statues ought to reward the most excellent work like this. I’ve heard it said, “Whatever is rewarded is repeated.” Each dollar bill you spend on a movie is a reward like the golden Oscar statue. Be empowered to give out your rewards for excellence that enhances humanity. And when you hand out your rewards, you are able to help Hollywood become a place of increasing liberty, where all are free to act.

1 Comment

  1. Nicolas Nelson on August 29, 2016 at 9:50 pm

    Just yesterday Erwin McManus mentioned in his Sunday message the contrast between “the chef’s table” and “the cafeteria table.” It was painfully convicting, and highlights one principle at work to determine who will have nurtured and developed the creative excellence needed to win Oscars: cultivating excellence at the source, among the youth, and making happy sacrifices for it in our daily and weekly lives. Yet for the sake of self-esteem, we too often settle for so little from our children when they explore and perform creatively.

    On the one hand, it’s good and natural to be so easily pleased by our children. And I’m all for delighting in and celebrating every little creative step they take: when my daughter finished her first screenplay, I was thrilled with it, seeing only the glimmers of brilliance and overlooking all the ways it fell short of being publishable. (I am a literary editor, but I shut off my “editor mode” when I’m home with my kids!)
    On the other hand, we need to create opportunities to challenge our children to excel in those creative explorations, times and places in which we draw out their potential and make it potent. Otherwise they will grow up believing they really can dance, or sing, or write, act, direct, draw, paint, photograph or video… until the day they are publicly compared (or compare themselves) with professionals, and decide (often wrongly!) that they really can’t, and give up on themselves as “untalented.”

    Yes, true talent separates the master from the journeyman. But so much latent talent remains undeveloped because we are delighted with poor quality creativity in our local schools and churches. This is not merely a problem in underprivileged communities, although it’s a worse problem here (i.e. South Central LA). I see this in churches & schools everywhere in the US.

    I’m grateful for the exceptions! Lula Washington Dance Theatre, on Crenshaw Boulevard in South Los Angeles, is one of these. Two of my three kids studied dance there, and Miss Lula & her team welcome kids of all levels, and then press them to grow, improve, explore, stretch towards excellence. Only in contexts like this do we see “untalented” kids develop comfortable familiarity with that creative skill… and only in contexts like this do we see talented kids develop their skills into something marketable, something that might be Oscar-winning in the future.

    (I must confess that Mosaic is another exception to the “cafeteria mentality” toward creative expression, and I feel privileged to belong to a tribe that values the “chef’s table” enough to invest so deeply in developing all its ingredients to a high degree of excellence before serving that creativity to a hungry world.)

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