It was a big night for “A Star is Born” at the National Board of Review in New York on Tuesday, but the movie wasn’t the centerpiece of the evening. While Lady Gaga accepted her first acting award of the season and Bradley Cooper accepted his first for directing, they couldn’t capture the national mood. That fell to “If Beale Street Could Talk” filmmaker Barry Jenkins, whose acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay coincided with President Donald Trump’s televised remarks about the government shutdown.
“Literally, right now, the President of the United States is talking about walls and borders. Literally, right fucking now,” he said. “So I can’t help talk about the president, the borders, and all these walls. There is a film here called ‘Minding the Gap’ that is being celebrated, by [director] Bing Liu. His family immigrated here and the president does not want them here.”
As the audience roared, Jenkins continued. “Chloe Zhao, who directed ‘The Rider,’ which is a masterpiece, the president does not want her here,” he said. “There is a film this year called ‘Roma,’ made by a man named Alfonso Cuarón, who the president does not want here. He reduces them to ‘los hombres malos’ and ‘las mujeres malas.’ Fuck him.”
It was the second powerful moment for “Beale Street” on the awards circuit, following Regina King’s best supporting actress speech at the Golden Globes, when she pledged to make 50% of the staff on all of her future projects women. Jenkins positioned his own remarks in the context of James Baldwin, whose novel inspired the film. “I did want to quote him tonight,” Jenkins said. “It’s so relevant today because so much that needs to be changed that has not been changed.” He continued with a quote from Baldwin’s “Nobody Knows My Name”:
The questions which one asks oneself begin, at least, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others. One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion. This energy is all that one finds in the rubble of vanished civilizations, and the only hope for ours.
Jenkins then circled back to his main point: “I admire so many people in this room who, through their work, are so willing to face themselves with wisdom and compassion. Let’s be an example for the President of the United States of America. No walls. No borders. Fuck him.”
That sentiment was echoed in warmer terms later in the night by the evening’s big winner, “Green Book,” when producer-director Peter Farrelly accepted the award for Best Film. “The next politician I’m voting for is somebody who represents all of us,” he said. “‘Green Book’ is a movie for everybody.” Farrelly was presented the award by CNN White House correspondent April Ryan, who has frequently tussled with Trump at press conferences. “I know I’m supposed to be at the White House tonight. Thank god I’m here,” she said. “In 2019, we the people are still forming a perfect union.” She connected “Green Book” to a string of movies that provided a portrait of “what America looks like.”
“Green Book” best actor winner Viggo Mortensen also took a stab at Trump. “I am sorry that we are missing the pearls of wisdom of our dear leader, Agent Orange,” he said, using a pejorative nickname often applied by “BlacKkKlansman” director Spike Lee. “It must have been fascinating theater.” On a more serious note, he added: “One could argue that we are in the worst of times, globally, not just in this country, in many ways. But the acts of kindness by good listeners and observers, the sincere apologies, the children, and all things new in the world are there if we pay attention to them. They’re there to contrast with negative aspects of society and to remind us of our better selves.”
Striking a similar note of inclusivity, “RGB” directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West discussed the subject of their winning documentary — Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg — as the ideal contrast to the other media event that evening. “RGB is a role model in these divisive times,” West said. “She’s a woman who always stands up for what she believes, but when it comes to her friendship with Justice Scalia and other conservatives, she’s not afraid to engage with and even love her ideological opponents.” (The pair also did planks onstage as a tribute to the exercise-obsessed justice’s workout routine.)
More progressive messaging arrived courtesy of “Crazy Rich Asians,” which received the Best Ensemble award. Michelle Yeoh received the loudest applause as she approached the microphone and discussed the need for diversity in Hollywood underscored by the exclusively Asian and Asian American cast. “You don’t have to treat us special. Just give us equal opportunities,” she said. “I hope that a lot of you out there join us in this spotlight. Remember our faces because we’re not going away.”
The string of empowering messages made the fanfare around “A Star is Born” look comparatively small by the time Lady Gaga took the stage late in the evening. “Is Brett Kavanaugh still in office? And Trump is still president?” the best actress winner said as she accepted the award from Stephen Colbert, as if searching for a punchline before abandoning it. She then delivered a lengthy tribute to her mother (her date for the evening) and co-star and director Cooper, who she called “a modern directorial Houdini.” However, she did conclude by placing the movie in a broader context. “Bradley, thank you for making a film that reminds the world the importance of compassion, empathy, and kindness,” she said. “This is what we stand for.”
Cooper accepted his prize from the biggest name of the evening, Steven Spielberg, who won the same award in 2017 for “The Post.” The filmmaker addressed Cooper’s long-gestating desire to make his directorial debut. “A good director is someone with the inability to compromise with a movie stuck in your head,” Spielberg said. “He’s not only directing the heck out of this movie. He’s also giving one of the finest performances of his career.”
Cooper himself avoided any political grandstanding, and instead focused on thanking the NBR for his second award from the group, which also gave him best actor for “Silver Linings Playbook.” He teared up as he recalled receiving that news on the set of “The Hangover Part III.” He conjured the amusing image of Zack Galifianakis glaring at him as he found out about the award in between takes. “It probably isn’t the set photo people would expect,” Cooper said.
So what exactly is the National Board of Review? That question came up more than once throughout the evening. The group was founded in 1909 to oversee film content in lieu of government intervention and has released its picks for the best films of the year since 1929. However, its membership of industry insiders is not widely known. “When I was told I had won best actress from the National Board of Review, I said, ‘What’s that?’” King said in her speech. “Thank you to the National Board of Review, whoever you are,” added “Cold War” director Pawel Pawlikowski, accepting the Best Foreign Language Film prize.
It took Kenneth Lonergan, presenting Jenkins with his award, to set the record straight. “I don’t want to toot my own horn because that’s not why I’m here, but I do know what the National Board of Review is,” he said. “Anyone who loves old movies will see the little plaque near the credits that says ‘Passed by the National Board of Review.’”
Whatever the function of the evening, most agreed that it was welcome alternative to other events of the night. As Colbert put it: “Being here means I had to miss the president’s stupid speech.”