The White House Correspondents’ Dinner held on Saturday was mostly business as usual in Washington, D.C. Incisive commentary is often a subject of comedy, but there has been little of it at President Barack Obama’s past yearly dinners. There has been only identity politics and personal attacks, cut from the same cloth as those congressmen who staunchly refuse to deal with Obama because of his identity rather than his policies. The dinner was lighthearted, yet petty.
This is why comedian Keegan Michael-Key was exactly what the event needed. As Obama’s anger translator Luther, Michael-Key’s character was all about leading Obama to cut through his measured political tone to deliver cold, honest complaints at an inappropriate volume. Instantly, his appearance punctuated the evening with direct, candid references to very real grievances. Where before Obama talked only about people, now he was voicing frustration with climate change deniers, right-wing paranoia and campaign-funding regulations — in other words, real issues. Michael-Key’s presence on the stage, it seemed, empowered Obama to actually speak out about problems and elevated the dinner from the relative minutiae of mocking
Michael-Key knew what the people wanted, and by bringing Luther to the national stage he gave it to them in spades. The appeal of anger is undeniable in a year marked by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, as well as the recent death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray, at the hands of police, and the most incisive ideological flashpoints were defined by people going out en masse to march, scream and cry.
Obama’s address on the Baltimore riots on Tuesday, meanwhile, placidly dismissed protesters’ grief as “counterproductive.” Even as the last six months have proven time and time again that civilized protest saves no lives, Obama and other leaders refuse to address the root concern of the riots — the fear and frustration that permeates the community — opting instead to tut at property damage values and scold the disadvantaged for daring to be angry. The lack of political discourse is discouraging, but the lack of action is inexcusable.
For one brief, fleeting moment, there was real catharsis in a government event. The American people got to see the combative, authoritative side of politics that works beyond name-calling and that works to get things done. They were vindicated — for five minutes — in their anger. They were reminded that they are fighting for something real. As tensions in Baltimore begin to boil over, Washington needs to begin recognizing the value of listening to the voices of the frustrated. Michael-Key did more than blow the suits out of the water — he showcased the ability of provocative, thoughtful anger to give voice to the body politic.
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A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 29 print edition. Email Richard Shu at [email protected]