Presentation of Writers Guild of America Awards Brings Up Touchy Race Issue

February 21, 2012

As usual during the Writers Guild of America kudofest, which was presented on Sunday night, Feb. 19, 2012, some of the best material came during the presentation and acceptance speeches of the honorary awards.

“The Help” co-stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, both sitting pretty for the Academy Awards next weekend in their respective lead and supporting actress categories, presented screenwriter-director Tate Taylor with the Paul Selvin Award, which recognizes work that embodies the spirit of constitutional rights and civil liberties.

Taylor, a white man from Mississippi, has been maligned in some quarters for adapting Kathryn Stockwell’s novel about black maids working in Jackson, Mississippi, during the 1960s, on the brink of the civil rights movement — as has Stockwell herself, because she is white.

In his acceptance speech, Taylor articulately addressed those issues, after revealing that he was co-raised by a black woman and had been roommates with Spencer for years as they both tried to break into the entertainment industry, noting that they kept loaning each other the same $500 and would fight over the last bowl of chili in their apartment.

"I’ve become aware of a troubling irony," Taylor said. "As ‘The Help’ began its rise, there are those that said two white people had no right to tell the story. Two white people in 2010 had no right to tell the story of people in 1963. But we came from a place of love as Southerners with respect and admiration for those women and millions like her the world over — who may be home with your children right now. People should have the right to tell any story they choose. If not, we all lose. We should strive for a place for people to tell the kind of stories they want without judgment."

On the lighter side, these truly are the glory days of ABC’s smash hit comedy “Modern Family," which by the conclusion of the 2012 Writers Guild Awards ceremony had added two more trophies to its already kudos-laden mantel.

It was the third year in a row that "MF” walked away with the guild’s top comedy series award, cementing its position as the one to beat against other laughers in the category that included "30 Rock," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Louie" and "Parks & Recreation.”

"We are very scared that people are sick of us," showrunner Steve Levitan admitted to the audience, referring to the freshness of the show’s recent wins at the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards. Not to mention those five Emmy Awards from last fall.

When his show also took the statuette for episodic comedy, which recognizes specific episodes, all of the credited writers came up on stage and spit out one-liners indicative of their talent, including Elaine Ko, who spoofed Asian-American stereotypes by saying, "I’m bad at math, I don’t play an instrument, and I’m not Jeremy Lin.”

TO SEE A COMPLETE LIST OF WINNERS OF THE WRITERS GUILD AWARDS, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

The WGA West ceremony at the Hollywood Palladium — a simultaneous one was held by WGA, East at the B.B. King Blues Club in New York — was filled with such laughs, due in no small part to its hosts, “Community’s” Joel McHale and this season’s TV comedy "it" girl, Zooey Deschanel. The star of "New Girl" started off the festivities by saying "Welcome to the nerd prom” and proceeding to make fun of male writers’ penchant for wardrobes filled with plaid shirts, admonishing them to shield themselves from the harsh lights of the outside world.

The list of West Coast presenters ranged from Tom Selleck to Amy Poehler, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis, Bryan Cranston and Vince Gilligan, Patton Oswalt and Lisa Kudrow as the Guild awarded a series of honors in other television categories, new media, video games, documentary and feature films.

AMC’s "Breaking Bad" gained proof that it is stronger than ever, taking home two trophies, one for drama series and one for episodic drama, tying with up-and-comer "Homeland," which is already stacking up a cache of awards from its freshman season on Showtime.

With Poehler, who had appeared on “SNL” the night before, pushing for her former show in the tough competition for the comedy/variety (including talk) prize, it was Colbert that was in the cards. Stephen’s writing staff bested the scribes at “Conan,” “Jon Benjamin Has a Van," “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” “Real Time with Bill Maher,” “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Since no one from “The Colbert Report” was in the audience, Poehler temporarily claimed the winged statue.

In the animation category, “The Simpsons” scored four of the six nominations (episodes from “Futurama” and “Ben 10: Ultimate Alien" were the others) and funny enough, Bart and company scored the prize for an episode titled “Homer the Father” by Joel H. Cohen.

In the long-form original category, only two contenders duked it out, “Five” on Lifetime and “Cinema Verite” on HBO, which took home the WGA. In long-form adapted, again only two candidates, and both aired on HBO: "Mildred Pierce" and "Too Big to Fail," a dramatization of the financial crisis starring William Hurt that bested its rival in the eyes of WGA voters.

Hurt mostly works in movies, as does director David Fincher, who presented the lifetime achievement in outstanding writing for motion pictures, which the Writers Guild calls its Laurel Award for Screen. This year’s honoree is Eric Roth, whose work ranges from "Forrest Gump" to “The Insider” and from “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which Fincher directed.

“I found someone who hated more people in Hollywood than I did, and that was something to build on,” said Fincher, in a funny taped piece set on a soundstage.

For his turn, Roth read a lengthy email reply to Brad Pitt’s query about the importance of storytelling in film, starting out with, “Blondie, go back to what you do best — off-road motorcycling.”

Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick received the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television. They received it after kudos from a writer they mentored, Jason Katims, and a lengthy clip from the pilot of their first breakout hit, “thirtysomething” that brought back a lot of memories of that groundbreaking 1980s show.

“Midnight in Paris” got the WGA’s top honor for original screenplay for its writer (and director) Woody Allen, a win to which McHale reacted by saying, “I can’t believe he’s not here.” He wasn’t at the New York ceremony either, but recently made his West Coast presence known through a taped piece for the DGA Awards.

For the best adapted screenplay, Alexander Payne won the prize for “The Descendants,” which he also directed, with co-writers Jim Rash and Nat Faxon. Payne thanked novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings for her Hawaii-set book, saying they had a very good time in her world.

Meanwhile, McHale noted that his friend Rash wrote all the dialog for George Clooney’s wife, who … um, hello, was in a coma.

It was that kind of night.

TO SEE A COMPLETE LIST OF WINNERS OF THE WRITERS GUILD AWARDS, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

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