Screenwriter Billy Ray on Showbiz’s Political Activism: ‘Turns Out, America and Its Ideals Are Sacred in Hollywood’

Billy Ray
Courtesy of Billy Ray

I often wonder what would happen if Donald Trump got to make a movie about Hollywood, instead of the other way around.

Of course, he’s been writing it for years. We’re the radical left, anti-God; we hate Christmas! A bunch of condescending socialist defund-the-policers. Clichés all, but here’s one I bet he wouldn’t use to describe us: patriots.

Yes, I just said that. Here’s why:

In early 2017, as I was scraping myself off the floor in the aftermath of Trump’s election, I decided I would never again wake up the morning after an election thinking, “I could have done more.”

So I began to reach out to candidates who were going to be running for the House and Senate in 2018. And I asked some colleagues of mine for help in a new and informal effort.

Step one was lunch (this is Hollywood, after all). I put together a few lunches with promising candidates and invited fellow writers, producers, agents, studio folks. Ten people at a time, then 20, then 30. Then I started holding town halls in venues provided to me for free by the WGA and studio lions like Jim Gianopulos.

I’d bring in four or five candidates for panels … and crowds of 300 or 400 people would show up. It was exhilarating.

And I hit up my friends for donations. A lot of donations. I don’t know how much money we raised between 2017 and last week, but it was a lot. No one ever said no.

More, if I asked for non-financial help — “Would you help me make a commercial?” “Can you do a phone bank?” “Can you rally some folks in your hometown for this great candidate?” — the answer was always yes, with no one seeking credit.

The effort and staggering generosity that I witnessed had nothing to do with ego, or arrogance, or partisanship. This was pure love of country, and a desperate defense of democracy. Turns out, America and its ideals are sacred in Hollywood.

That’s why we’ve always told stories that make America examine itself. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Chaplin’s “Modern Times” — think about what “All in the Family” and “Roots” did. Or what “Saving Private Ryan” did for veterans’ causes. Or the countless stories we’ve told to humanize the plight of communities chronically left behind in America.

From “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to “All the President’s Men,” from “Norma Rae” to “Platoon” to “Moonlight,” we have celebrated American ideals and castigated America’s failures in a never-ending attempt to make America live up to its promise.

That’s what I saw in those countless town halls and fundraisers and phone banks, and in every request I put out.

Our work is not done, of course. Two Georgia Senate races await, which means we have to put a sequel into immediate production. Fortunately, we have a script, and it’s solid.

Yes, we do have to learn to stop doing the things that make us such easy targets for the right: condescending, virtue signaling, canceling people recklessly just to prove our social-justice-warrior status. That’s all nonsense. It’s also cowardice. And it will not get us where we need to go.

That’s why so many of my colleagues put it aside in this effort. To each of them, all I can say is thank you, and bravo, for your unending display of sacrifice, effort, generosity and fellowship — all driven by a patriotism much of America (and certainly the Republican Party) may never see.

Wait. That just sounded like a super-sanctimonious Oscar acceptance speech, which is a cliché all by itself. Whoops! Sorry, Don. You can put it in the movie. Oh, and Merry Christmas.

Billy Ray wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Captain Phillips, for which he won the WGA Award, and also wrote, directed and executive-produced Showtime’s political drama “The Comey Rule.” His films as writer, co-writer or writer-director include “The Hunger Games,” “Richard Jewell,” “Shattered Glass” and “Breach.” His current feature projects include “‘68,” the true story of Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and “The Silent Wife” for Nicole Kidman.