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John Legend Made the Most Important Point at the Oscars

Robyn Beck/Getty Images

Ever since the 2015 Oscar nominees were announced, the Academy has been vilified for not recognizing a single person of color in its acting categories. So it was up to a Mexican director with an accent and two nominated musicians to remind Hollywood and its consumers of some of the biggest civil rights issues still confronting minorities.

Following a rousing performance of “Glory,” off the largely overlooked Selma, John Legend and Common took to the stage a second time to receive the Oscar for Best Original Song—and brought down the house again. “This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation, but now it’s a symbol for change,” said Common, pointing to a stage replica of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, featured prominently in history and the film. “The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status. ... This bridge was built on hope.”

While Common's speech was typically poetic, John Legend took aim at law and policy. “Nina Simone said it’s an artist's duty to reflect the times in which we live,” Legend said. “Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today.”

That was a dig at state lawmakers across the country, including in Texas and Wisconsin, which rushed to pass restrictive voting measures after the Supreme Court bored a hole in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That postscript was nowhere to be found in Selma, but it matters because these new voting burdens fall hardest on minorities and the poor, and new court challenges aimed at reviving the landmark civil-rights statute have fallen short. Meanwhile, more voting restrictions are on the horizon.

But Legend took it up a notch when he referenced Michelle Alexander’s seminal The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, a book that dismantles the notion of America’s legal system as having anything to do with justice and instead shows how it's a modern version of oppression for men of color. “We know that the struggle for freedom and justice is real,” Legend said. “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.”

Notice the flair of saying “under correctional control,” which not only covers incarceration, but also some form of supervision from the state, including probation or parole. This is a real and pressing issue—perhaps the only one where polarization is fading. In November, the ACLU received a $50 million grant, the largest in its history, to combat mass incarceration over an eight-year period. And last week, strange bedfellows Koch Industries and the Center for American Progress formed an alliance, the Coalition for Public Safety, to push policymakers at all levels of government to undo some of the damage from these policies, which have wrought untold damage on black communities.

One of the biggest policy issues for Latinos, immigration, also got a time in the spotlight thanks to the biggest winner of the night, Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who nabbed statuettes for Best Picture and Best Director. “I want to dedicate this award to my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico ... and the ones living in this country, who are part of the latest generation of immigrants,” said Iñárritu. “I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation.”

His comments were almost overshadowed by actor Sean Penn's bizarre introduction, in which he quipped about Iñárritu (with whom he worked on 21 Grams): "Who gave this son of a bitch a green card?”

The director took it all in stride, but the contrast between his call for dignity and Penn’s off-color joke is a testament to how clueless Hollywood can be about issues involving race and minorities. And this affects even those who cover it. There’s no other way to explain why Chris Pine and not Selma’s David Oyelowo grabbed all the headlines for weeping following the “Glory” performance. Or for Slate to shed tears of its own over Boyhood, which has a Latino problem that’s as big as the state of Texas.

Hollywood and its enablers still have some coming-to-grips to do over these matters. But at least these truths made small cameos on film’s biggest night, giving those who care about these things a reason for hope.

Correction: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law before, not after, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.