television academy honors

Producer Sarah Eagle Heart accepts the award for Lakota Nation vs. The United States


Producer Alli Reich accepts the award for BEEF

Fill 1
Fill 1
May 31, 2024
Awards News

Past and Present at the 17th Television Academy Honors

History and humanity take center stage at the Academy's annual salute to programming that makes a difference.

In her high school African-American Studies class, Nikole Hannah-Jones read the book Before the Mayflower, which described the landing of a ship called the White Lion in 1619 colonial Virginia. The vessel carried the first Africans to America, where they were sold as indentured servants — an action considered the beginning of African slavery in the United States.

"I remember as a 15-year-old child, understanding at that moment that there was a reason that we all learned about the Mayflower" — the ship that brought the Pilgrims from England to America in 1620 — "but we didn't learn about the White Lion earlier," recalled Hannah-Jones, the creator, host and an executive producer of the Hulu docuseries The 1619 Project; the show examines the history of slavery and racism in the U.S. and is based on her essays in the New York Times Magazine.

"And that’s because what we’re taught in history is not everything that happens; it's just what powerful people decided to teach us about what happened. … [But] what happens if we just change that lens? Widen that lens to all the stories that were set aside, that were also critical to a country that we all live in? … Until we tell our history more truthfully, we can never become the country of our highest ideals."

Hannah-Jones related that pivotal educational moment and its effect during her acceptance speech at the 17th Television Academy Honors ceremony, where The 1619 Project was one of seven programs recognized, as Television Academy chair Cris Abrego said in his welcome remarks, for their "power to make a difference."

"Programming with impact, programming that alters and broadens perspective, both of its audience and society at large," Abrego added. "Television, I believe, is truly the most powerful tool in the world when it comes to advocating for social change."

Held May 23 at the Citizen News event space in Hollywood and hosted by Emmy-nominated actress and director Constance Zimmer (UnREAL), this year’s ceremony celebrated several other programs whose spotlight, like that of The 1619 Project, illuminates the concerns of communities marginalized historically and socially. The AMC+ documentary Lakota Nation vs. United States chronicles the efforts of the Lakota Indigenous people to preserve their claim to the Black Hills of South Dakota, over more than a century of broken treaties and other oppression by the U.S. government.

In her acceptance, executive producer Sarah Eagle Heart noted that this story, with its racial tensions and a rejected award of more than $1 billion from the U.S. Supreme Court, also has not been taught in school. "This honor is an affirmation that I really believe that the world is ready to hear the truth and move toward healing and reconciliation," said Eagle Heart, a Daytime Emmy winner for an interactive media project. "We ended with [a] phrase that means, 'We are all related. We are all connected.' And I surely believe that if we lived that way in America, we wouldn't see all the wrongs and injustices that we have today. So thank you."

A third Honors recipient, the HBO/Max documentary 1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed, explores the challenges faced by children of mixed race, inspired by comedian W. Kamau Bell's own family: Bell, who is Black, has three daughters with his wife, Melissa Hudson Bell, who is white.

Bell, who executive-produced, directed and stars in the program, brought his family on stage to accept his statuette. "Thank you to the Television Academy for this honor,” said Bell, a three-time Emmy winner for the CNN reality program United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell. "It means so much to me … and we know that our work means something."

And Heartstopper, a Netflix series about British students experiencing first love while coming to terms with being gay or bisexual — and dealing with the accompanying bullying and other intolerance — was also recognized. Zimmer accepted; British creator-writer Alice Oseman was unable to attend.

While impact, rather than Emmys, was the focus of the night, two honorees had won 2023 Emmy Awards: The 1619 Project as Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series and BEEF, whose eight wins included Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series. The Netflix dark comedy, about the increasingly vengeful aftermath of a road rage incident between two strangers — a Korean man and a Chinese-Vietnamese-American woman — highlights the angst and pressure of life in today's America, both personal and social.

Executive producer Alli Reich introduced Korean-American executive producer-director Lee Sung Jin, who accepted on video.

"When I started my career 15 years ago, I didn't think a show like this would be possible," Lee said. "So, I thank the community for all the progress over the last two decades, that's allowed for the show to exist. That being said, given the state of the industry right now, with all these companies signaling contraction, and less budgets and less shows, I hope we can continue to rally around each other to build upon the progress that's been made so far. Which is why this honor means so much, and is not taken for granted. Whatever we do next, I hope we can continue to be a positive part of the social change that's happened so far. Thank you so much."

The current political scene is one reason contemporary life is unsettling, and the Showtime docuseries Deadlocked: How America Shaped the Supreme Court traces the evolution of the court to its conservative majority and its impact, in turn, on the evolution and erosion of civil liberties.

Executive producer-director Dawn Porter, a governor of the Academy’s Documentary Programming peer group, applauded Pomona College politics department chair Amanda Hollis-Brusky, who was in attendance, and who, she said, has been asking, "What are the dangers of a court that is really a revolutionary court, that is nothing like we have ever seen before?"

Added Porter, "Increasingly, it became clear to me that we couldn't just talk about what's happening now. … We need to understand where we come from, in order to understand where we're going and where we do and do not want to be. So I thank you so much, the Television Academy, for recognizing this. [It means] that people will continue to pay attention."

Since 1947, when The Diary of a Young Girl was first published, the world has been paying attention to the writings of Anne Frank, the Jewish German-Dutch teenager who died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Not as widely known is Miep Gies, who worked for Anne’s father, Otto, in Amsterdam; hid the Frank family and others from the Nazis during World War II in a building annex; and saved Anne’s journals after the family was discovered and arrested.

The story of Gies’s quiet bravery is told in National Geographic’s limited series A Small Light; she and husband Jan performed numerous brave and risky acts during the Nazi regime. Said Joan Rater, creator-executive producer-writer with Tony Phelan, in her acceptance speech, "Miep’s legacy is that of an ordinary person's sacrifice, and it's one that we wanted to tell in a way that felt immediate. We wanted to wipe away the cobwebs, and make Miep feel like she could be someone you know, like she could be you.

"Our title comes from Miep herself. She said, 'I don't like being called a hero, because no one should ever think they have to be special to help someone. Even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.' Thank you — this honor means so much to us."

The recipients' not-so-small lights have certainly shone. Bell had noted in accepting that when he was a child, his mother made him watch the PBS Civil Rights-history series Eyes on the Prize. The show, he said, "opened my mind and changed my world. My plea is that this industry continues — and increases — its investment in projects like the ones being honored today. These projects … can, and do, make the world a better place."

Scott A. Freeman is chair of the Television Academy Honors Selection Committee; Bobbi Banks is vice chair. The Television Academy Honors was created by production designer John Shaffner, then co-chair of the Academy's social outreach committee who later became Academy chair and CEO, and developed with committee co-chair Lynn Roth and former Academy chair Dick Askin.

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