Hollywood Jumps In to Support Democrats in Georgia Senate Races: "There's a New South That's Rising"

Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock
Jessica McGowan/Getty Images; Megan Varner/Getty Images

Spurred on by film production's growing ties to the state, the entertainment crowd has come out to support Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the runoff election, with an emphasis on supporting grassroots groups led by Black women.

For months, all eyes were on Nov. 3 as the deciding day of the U.S.’ political future. Now that day is Jan. 5, as two Georgia runoff elections will decide control of the Senate and how much President-elect Joe Biden will be able to accomplish at the start of his term.

Since no candidate surpassed the necessary 50 percent of the vote in order to secure the seat, Democrat Raphael Warnock will again face off with incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, as will Democrat Jon Ossoff against incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue. The tight races follow a monumental election year in Georgia, which saw the historically red state turn blue for the first time since 1992, and Hollywood activists are joining in to keep that Blue Wave flowing.

"This is one of the first years I've gotten phone calls not just from the celebrities, but from managers, from producers, from radio owners, from studio owners," says Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown. "We never get a phone call from a studio owner. You're like, 'What?'"

John Legend and Kerry Washington are joining virtual text and phone bank Zooms, along with doing radio interviews in key counties and working with the campaigns; Jon Cryer and Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff have matched donations to the candidates and Georgia grassroots organizations via Twitter; and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before author Jenny Han is hosting student-centered events aimed at registering Georgia teens ahead of the election.

On Nov. 17, Jeff Katzenberg, Byron Allen and producer Jamie Patricof were among the co-hosts for a virtual fundraiser for Ossoff and Warnock, and on Dec. 3, producer Ellen Goldsmith-Vein will co-host another candidate fundraiser alongside Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick and Billy Eichner for Swing Left, with a performance from Leslie Odom Jr. Crooked Media’s Vote Save America initiative has launched an “Adopt A State” program to support Georgia organizers and activists through volunteering, fundraising and info-sharing, with support from Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. On Dec. 6, Dreyfus and showrunner David Mandel will also lead the Veep cast in a live, virtual table read of 2016 episode "Mother" to benefit grassroots group America Votes.

"You show up to do the work. You show up to phone bank and you write letters and do digital canvassing and everything that I think we all did as citizens — not as Hollywood people, but as citizens — for the general election," says Alyssa Milano, a longtime political activist. "Being someone who worked in Georgia for two years while I shot [Netflix series] Insatiable, I'm really aware of how powerful and impactful the organizers are."

"If I were in Georgia right now shooting, that would be a whole other story," she adds. "I'd be knocking on doors, I'd be driving people to the polls, but I'm not, so the best thing I think we can all do in this situation is support the people on the ground doing the hard work and that don't often get recognized for it."

Those doing the hardest work include Fair Fight, Black Voters Matter, and the New Georgia Project, grassroots organizations run by Black women that over the course of years have laid the groundwork for the results seen in 2020. As a result, these Georgia runoff races break from tradition in large scale support of not just the two candidates, but with an emphasis on grassroots efforts.

Fair Fight, a Georgia-based voting rights organization founded by Stacey Abrams — who is largely credited with bringing in a record-breaking 5 million votes from the state, up from 4.1 million in 2016 — has continually engaged with the Hollywood community, enlisting Selena Gomez, Yara Shahidi, Issa Rae, Keke Palmer and Steph Curry for voting videos. Starting Nov. 27, Abrams is even hosting a weekly briefing specifically for Hollywood agents, managers, publicists and entertainment execs for how they can best help in the races.

"I believe very much in the power of celebrity to cut through the noise of politics," Abrams said during an Amazon-hosted Q&A for her film All In: The Fight for Democracy on Nov. 18. "Whether it was in Georgia or in Michigan or Wisconsin, Arizona, or Nevada — states that faced aggressive voter suppression in 2016, 2018 — it was absolutely an important moment when they heard someone they saw not as a politician, which is an easy community to be suspect of, but those that they trusted as part of the way they think about how they organize their lives. It does indeed matter."

And while that doesn’t mean they are asking for anyone to relocate to the South, it does mean volunteering, fundraising and spreading the world about key registration and voting dates, especially for those with millions of followers.

"We've been talking for quite a bit of time about how we are trying to change the culture of voting — what better way to do that than by partnering with culture workers, people who are literally responsible for helping us shift the narrative and tell better stories about ourselves," says New Georgia Project executive director Nse Ufot.

That also includes tapping into the Hollywood connection that has emerged in Georgia, with film production tax incentives that have made Atlanta and the surrounding areas one of the busiest shooting locations in the country. Even amid the pandemic, more than a dozen projects are currently in production, including multiple Marvel shows and films and the Dear Evan Hansen musical adaptation, the latest in recent years where "our state is growing by leaps and bounds because of an influx of storytellers and people who support them," says Ufot. "I think that that could be a secret weapon as we think about the new Georgia."

Brown echoes the same message of rewriting the state’s narrative where “we’re not the headquarters for Southern white male racists,” moved forward by Hollywood’s influence.

"We're trying to tell people not to write Georgia off, that Georgia is on the map," Brown says. "We've seen this transition — Georgia is the number one place for film productions, so this city has become more internationalized, I think one. I think it's been attractive to bringing diverse folks to the state. There's a new South that's rising with the growing presence of the film and entertainment industry."

Because of that newfound link, those in entertainment are getting involved in a state race in a way they never have before, and in more authentic fashion.

"Many of the celebrities and Hollywood folks have been coming to us really being very transparent about not knowing what to do and asking us what they could do to help the work that's on the ground. That's been very refreshing because I've seen in other years where I felt people were doing it just to build their brand," Brown says. "What I've been seeing is across the board, there have been people all throughout the industry that have been stepping up and I do think that that has made a difference."

TV director Angela Barnes — a first AD on Atlanta who segued to the director’s chair for Mythic Quest, Legacies, Teenage Bounty Hunters and One Day at a Time — is also among the Hollywood crowd getting involved in the Georgia races. She was the brains behind the viral PSA "Get Your Booty to the Polls" which featured Atlanta strip club dancers waxing on about the importance of voting — an attempt to target Black male voters, a key demographic in the November election.

Barnes has plans for another PSA "locked and loaded" but she and her collaborators (producers Paul Fox and Ashley Bedford) are waiting on funds. "I’m not going to not do anything. It’s like the old Mickey Rooney, 'Let’s put on a show,'" she explains, before adding the most valuable lesson she’s learned from wading in political waters for the first time. "The biggest thing I’ve learned is that no matter who you are, your voice matters and you can make an impact."

Chris Gardner contributed to this story.