“This is intense, bro!” Ryan Coogler said backstage, minutes before appearing at the #JusticeForFlint benefit on Sunday night at the Whiting Auditorium in Flint, Mich.
The Creed director could have been in Los Angeles, perhaps clad in a tuxedo, soaking up the glamor and glory of his Oscar-nominated film. Instead, Coogler was in Flint.
The filmmaker had important matters to attend to. The brainchild behind a free event to raise money and awareness for the people of Flint, the majority of whom are black and impoverished, Coogler aimed to shine a light on how the city’s residents have been subjected to massive lead and bacterial contamination in their water supply.
“It’s a systemic human-rights violation, and it touches everybody,” Coogler told The Hollywood Reporter of his motivations. An awareness-raising event, the night was also a celebration of black entertainers, activists, poets, thinkers and Flint residents. “You look at it and you see what’s happening from the outside and there’s no question why people are motivated to do the work. But once you get here and you meet the people, it’s like an extra battery.”
Presented by Coogler’s activist collective, Blackout for Human Rights, #JusticeForFlint was hosted by comedian Hannibal Burress and featured performances by everyone from surprise guests Stevie Wonder and Estelle to Janelle Monae, Vic Mensa, Jazmine Sullivan and Musiq Soulchild.
Wonder, for his part, didn’t mince words on the Flint situation when he took the stage at the end of the evening to thunderous roars from the crowd. “The reality is we all need water. That’s a human right,” the performer said before calling for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s resignation. “And it should be clean water! One requires accountability. If it goes down bad, someone’s gotta go.” The dire situation didn’t stop Wonder from performing with glowing enthusiasm. The music legend ran through “Love’s In Need of Love Today” and led a rousing duet with Monae on “Higher Ground.”
As for the Oscar elephant in the room? Few of the celebrities present on Sunday were willing to concede that the Flint fundraiser was purposely scheduled on the same night as the Oscars. That it went down at the exact time Chris Rock was skewering the Academy Awards audience for being “as racist as a sorority,” though, didn’t feel like a coincidence.
Ask event organizer and Selma director Ava DuVernay (unable to attend the event due to her shooting a film in New Orleans) if the timing of #JusticeForFlint was purposeful, however, and she was quick to deny it. In fact, DuVernay says this anti-Oscars narrative was a media-created one. “A lot of these people care nothing about these Oscars and it’s not their world,” she said of the event’s organizers in a phone call with reporters on Saturday afternoon. “It happens to be me and Ryan’s world. When it came up that this was a possible date it felt wrong to say, ‘No, guys. Let’s not do this date because there’s something happening in L.A.’”
In Flint, the message was a strong — and direct — one in the at-capacity auditorium: Music, poetry, art has the power to incite change, start and further conversations, inspire the afflicted. DuVernay said she felt compelled towards helping draw attention to the situation in Flint if for nothing else than the fact it disgusted her at a basic human level. “When something like this happens to a community that’s overwhelmingly made up of the working poor, of people of color, there’s no way you can turn a blind eye,” said the director. “For me, there was something very emotional about the idea that folks were being prevented from having the basic human right of water. Just water. There’s no politics about the human need for water. And yet the fact that politics were in play around folks not having it just felt like such an egregious human-rights violation. It felt completely disingenuous to be doing much else than focusing on this.”
Actors in attendance were equally as passionate and flabbergasted at the failure of the government in Flint. “This is about holding up a mirror to oppression and exploitation,” saidGrey’s Anatomy star Jessie Williams. “We may not be residents of Flint, but we are Flint,” said Empire star Jussie Smollett before performing “Conqueror” with Estelle. And despite not being present at the event, Mark Ruffalo offered his support via a pre-recorded message: “Donate in any way you can to the folks in Michigan,” pleaded the actor, nominated for best supporting actor for his role in Spotlight.
Even with the ominous situation that inspired the night’s event, the music was joyful and soulful. Monae, who said she has “dedicated her life to being woke,” tore through a spirited cover of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” and, with her nine-piece band in tow, strutted at the front of the stage while belting out renditions of “Electric Lady” and “Tightrope.”
As all the performers and even organizers took the stage at the end of the night chanting, “Clean our pipes!” and “Flint lives matter!,” one couldn’t help but recall what the true hero of the evening — Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Children’s Hospital and a leader in bringing attention to the water situation in Flint — had said earlier in the evening when addressing the Oscars situation more poignantly than any hashtag or motto could ever convey: “I wouldn’t want to spend my Oscar night anywhere but here!”
This article originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter