43rd Annual HUMANITAS Prize Winners Include 'The Post' and 'Lady Bird'
The 43rd Annual HUMANITAS Prize ceremony on Friday once again distinguished itself from the more standard awards fetes of the season by rewarding film and television writers for their projects that promoted human dignity, meaning, freedom and compassion.
HUMANITAS spread its own benevolence a little further this year by naming two movie winners in the feature drama category: The Post and Mudbound.
“This is an awesome two-for-one deal — this is crazy!” said The Post’s co-screenwriter Liz Hannah onstage at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, then struck a sobering note by adding that it felt a bit bizarre celebrating in the wake of this week’s deadly school shooting in Florida.
“We get to dream the world into a better place, and this week we got reminded about what the world actually is, which is children being gunned down at a school where they should be safe,” said Hannah. “Let’s just try to make the world better and nicer. We have the chance to do that.”
The Post co-screenwriter Josh Singer, noting that the monetary prizes awarded by the various non-profit organizations supporting HUMANITAS are donated to charitable causes, suggested that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press might be a worthy recipient given the current White House enmity toward the media that parallels the film’s plotline.
Singer recalled a conversation with Marty Barron, current editor-in-chief of The Washington Post, who “expressed no small anxiety about what this administration might do and how it might come after the press in the next year as they continue to get squeezed, so this is something we should all consider giving money to.”
Mudbound’s co-writer and director Dee Rees told The Hollywood Reporter before the ceremony that the import of HUMANITAS’ mission weighed heavily in her mind.
“For me, it makes me think about [the 2011 drama] Pariah, and when I wrote that film I needed a way to come out for myself, I needed a way to navigate things I was encountering in my own life,” said Rees. “I never expected it would help so many people with their own journeys, and over the years I’ve come alive to that. People say films change lives, or film will change ideas, and sometimes you doubt whether it does, but through Pariah I understood the power of culture.
“HUMANITAS means something, because it means Mudbound is doing some work in that way, too,” added Rees. “I live in a majority white town, and my plumber, who knows nothing about me, was probably a Trump voter, says, ‘Hey, I watched this film and I loved it,’ it’s huge — and I hadn’t mentioned it to him. I hadn’t told him anything about it, but he figured it out. When it has that kind of unexpected reach, it’s exciting.”
From the stage, co-screenwriter Virgil Williams said films like Mudbound are a vital voice in a particularly volatile moment of social change.
“We have messed around and gotten ourselves into a second civil rights movement,” he said. “And it’s not just about black folks — it’s about women, it’s about the LGBTQ community, it’s about our Muslim brothers and sisters, it is about humans, and it is about every kid out there who considers himself or herself ‘Other.’”
Accepting the prize for family feature, Ferdinand co-screenwriter Robert L. Baird recalled the social impact of the source material — author Munroe Leaf’s 1936 children’s book about a pacifist-minded bull — that inspired the animated film.
“The book became an instant children’s classic,” he said. “It was beloved by everyone — except Hitler, who thought it was a subversive tale about anti-fascism and had it banned and burned. When your kids’ book is pissing off Hitler, you know you’re doing something right. So Hitler, or a modern-day Hitler, would’ve hated the movie, and I really love that.”
Also victorious was Lady Bird, winning for the Feature Comedy category, although screenwriter Greta Gerwig was not on hand to collect her honor.
Writer-producer David Shore, who won in the 60-minute television category for the pilot episode of The Good Doctor, admitted that he accepted the award with a healthy dose of ambivalence.
“I have long believed that the idea of judging artistic merit on some kind of objective scale is just a fool’s game,” he explained. “It works fine when I lose, but winning this award becomes a situation where I have to go, “Thank you for acknowledging that I have inspired humanity, compassion and love — better than any of the other nominees, or anybody else who wrote a 60-minute script this year.’ I just can’t do that — but as I stand here, I’m tempted to.”
Still, Shore acknowledged the significance of the occasion.
“Even if I’m completely right, even if every single one of these awards are, in fact, nonsense, what is not nonsense are the words we write and the words we’ve heard tonight," he said. "And I am inspired by these people and I am proud to be in this room. … Everybody in this room has something to say.”
Also winning in the 30-minute television category was The Big Bang Theory episode “The Long Distance Dissonance.”
Veteran writer-producer John Scaret Young was given the Kieser Award — named for HUMANITAS founder Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser — for his remarkable track record of challenging, deeply humanistic projects, including the acclaimed TV series he created, China Beach; as a supervising producer on The West Wing; and for telepics such as Thanks of a Grateful Nation, Sirens and King of the World.
Young, who received from his longtime friend and colleague Carlton Cuse, recalled his own professional and personal relationship with Kieser — Young penned the Kieser-produced telepic Romero about Archbishop Oscar Romero — referring to the 6-foot-7 priest/producer as “literally and figuratively a giant.”
“What is HUMANITAS, what was Bud Kieser really about … tilting at windmills in Hollywood, giving awards to writers?” said Young. “He believed in the power of story to do that, and in the talent and fundamental importance of writers. To seek out, search and seize what hasn’t been unearthed before, or what needs to be sought after and illuminated again … never, never, never, never more than now.”
Also honored was The CW’s senior VP Traci Blackwell, who accepted the inaugural HUMANITAS Voice for Change Award.
“I’m told I that am the first person to receive this particular HUMANITAS, and to be chosen for an honor that is given for being a voice of change, and what that represents is not lost on me,” she said. “It has always been very important to me to fight for the voice of writers, for them to be able to tell their stories the way they see it, to support and protect their vision. Now, I know that sounds odd coming from a television network executive … I have really tried not to be that kind of executive. Sometimes the best note is no note. Sometimes the best gift we can give writers is to get out of the way.”