There is no disagreement that many of the projects created by Ava DuVernay and Greg Berlanti have contributed to increased social awareness on hot-button topics ranging from prison reform to LGBTQ and civil rights.
Now the two prolific producers share something else in common. They were this year’s honorees at the 45th annual Humanitas Prize ceremonies held Jan. 24 at the Beverly Hilton.
Eschewing glamour for gravitas in the midst of the winter awards season, the Humanitas Prize ceremonies hold a special place in the hearts of the Hollywood creative community as they honor movie and television writers whose projects contribute to exploring our common humanity.
This year’s ceremonies were hosted by another writer-producer, Bill Lawrence, who brought his irreverent brand of humor to the proceedings as he introduced presenters including Jay Kogen, David Shore, Julie Plec and Jenny Bicks, who takes over the presidency of Humanitas from Ali LeRoi.
From beginning to end of the three-hour presentation, one person commanded the attention of everyone on stage and seated in the ballroom — legendary producer Norman Lear.
The 97-year-old was the recipient of the organization’s first-ever Norman Lear Award, which honors social impact and personal responsibility, and received a sustained standing ovation as he took to the podium and praised his collaborators as he spoke of his legendary career, as did pretty much everyone else.
Lear’s television programs of previous decades including “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “One Day at a Time,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times” and “Maude” broke ground and opened doors as they entertained millions and millions of viewers — and continue to have an impact on the media landscape.
Humanitas also introduced two new prizes — and DuVernay won both of them. Her “When They See Us” (which streams on Netflix) was awarded in the Limited Series, TV Movie or Special category and she herself received the Voice for Change Award, presented to her by LeRoi.
“She’s dedicated to uplifting us and asking that we listen,” he said, and called out her projects ranging from “Thirteen” to “Selma,” “Queen Sugar” and “A Wrinkle in Time.”
In accepting the honor, DuVernay said that writing does not come easily to her and that she is inspired by her ancestors. “These are times that will long be remembered — and a testament to those who write their heads off,” she said. “I remain optimistic that hopefully we may embrace dreams and starting something new. Art will guide us.”
Berlanti, who started his career on “Dawson’s Creek,” received the Kieser Award, a lifetime achievement award for television and feature film writers whose work not only entertains but enriches the audience. It was presented to him by college buddy and longtime supporter Plec, known for her popular teen-oriented series including “The Vampire Diaries.”
“Julie and I have a lifelong friendship and a goal that we want to tell stories that make the world better,” said Berlanti, who also talked about his early years as a geeky kid who liked to put on puppet shows — and was fully supported by his mom, who became his agent, assistant and producer. “Julie took over where my mom left off,” he said, explaining that she was the one who got him his first job in television.
At last count, Berlanti had nine live-action superhero programs on TV, including The CW’s “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “Supergirl,” DC’s “Legends of Tomorrow,” “Batwoman” and “Black Lightning.”
The prizes are supported by a majority of the major networks, agencies and studios — and many of the recipients donate their prize money to nonprofit organizations, the majority of which focus on supporting aspiring artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers.
The Humanitas Prize was created in 1974 by Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser to celebrate television programs that affirm the dignity of people, explore the meaning of life and enlighten the concept of human freedom. It later expanded to include theater productions, feature films and documentaries along with children’s programming in both live action and animation. The organization also awards scholarships and grants to writers in television and in theater.
Here is the list of the winners:
Limited Series, TV Movie or Special
“When They See Us”
“Part 4” Teleplay by Ava DuVernay & Michael Starrbury; story by Ava DuVernay
“The Handmaid’s Tale”
“Useful” Written by Yahlin Chang; based on the novel by Margaret Atwood
Written By Alex Gregory & Peter Huyck
Drama Feature Film
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster; inspired by the article “Can You Say… Hero?” by Tom Junod
Family Feature Film
Story by Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, Marc E. Smith, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez; Screenplay by Jennifer Lee
“End of Sentence”
Written by Michael Armbruster
Comedy or Musical Feature Film
Screenplay by Taika Waititi; Based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens
Written by Lulu Wang
“Elena of Avalor” “Changing of the Guard”
Written by Kate Kondell
Written by Rosana Sullivan
“This Is Football” “Redemption”
Directed by James Erskine, Written by John Carlin
The David and Lynn Angell College Comedy Fellowship
Sheridan Watson (USC)
The Carol Mendelsohn College Drama Fellowship
King Lu (Columbia)
”From June to July”