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June 05, 2018

Changing Viewers' Hearts and Minds

The Eleventh Television Academy Honors inspires.

Libby Slate
  • Invision/AP

Near the end of the eleventh annual Television Academy Honors ceremony, when yet another production team took the stage and embraced emotionally before the designated spokesperson began an acceptance speech, host Dana Delany observed, "Group hugs tonight."

That's because the Honors has always been an event that inspires passion, pride and appreciation, on the part of the winners and the audience, even when the subject matter involved includes tough social issues such as mental health, racial inequality and LGBTQ intolerance, all topics covered this evening.

The ceremony recognizes, as Academy chairman and CEO Hayma Washington said in his welcoming remarks, "television that changes hearts and minds. The programs we are honoring tonight have made a tremendous positive impact on society, by enlightening viewers, prompting discussions and raising social awareness."

Held May 31 at NeueHouse Hollywood in Los Angeles, the evening celebrated seven programs, and also marked Delany's 10th consecutive year as host. In a night of strong emotion, perhaps the most obviously affected speaker was Moises Serrano, the subject of the documentary Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America, which aired on Logo.

And with good reason: Having come to North Carolina from Mexico with his parents when he was 18 months old, Serrano faced many forms of discrimination as someone both gay and undocumented.

In 2010 he decided to go public with his immigration status, becoming an activist for immigrant rights, a decision with potentially dangerous ramifications and one decidedly happy outcome: ineligible for a student loan, he was awarded a full scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College.

"What Forbidden shows is that the elite in power may try to strip away my rights as a queer man; the elite in power may try to take away my rights as an undocumented man; the elite in power may try to take away my humanity by using anti-immigrant rhetoric as a Mexican," Serrano said in acceptance.

"But something the elite in power will never be able to do is to take away the power of my story. And that is something that unites each and every single one of us in this room today. We each have a story to tell, and when we share those stories with one another, we will realize that there are fundamental threads weaving all of our narratives together, and that we cannot win the struggle for equality as divided movements.

"Nobody in this room is free, if some of us are still in cages. Thank you so much."

A different sort of immigrant story is that of Dr. Abraham George, who became a success in the United States and then decided to return to his native India to give back to those in need in his homeland.

The four-part Netflix documentary series Daughters of Destiny: The Journey of Shanti Bhavan chronicles his efforts: the school he founded, Shanti Bhavan, educates boys and girls from the lowest, poorest Indian caste with the stipulation that once they graduate college, they get a job and then contribute 20 to 50 per cent of their income to their family and community.

The series follows five girls of varying ages over a period of seven years, as they attain not only an education but an awareness of their rightful place in the world. As one girl says, "As a kid, when I went back [home], you're always convinced, 'Okay, this is where I belong.' But as you grow up, you see the differences and you see it's not where you belong, and you belong to where you place yourself."

Accepting was director-executive producer Vanessa Roth, who noted, "[The students] remind me every day about the core belief of Shanti Bhavan, which is, if you lift one child out of poverty, that child will carry 100 more people with them, and contribute to the larger world. And though they have caste and class and gender and history to climb over, they are doing it.

"The graduates are working every day to contribute to their families, to make sure that they have their basic human needs met.

"And in this moment in history, they're also contributing to the larger world in a way that this world needs so badly right now.

"By the very act of them sharing their lives through this series, of Netflix saying 'Yes' to amplifying their lives to the world, and by you in the Television Academy recognizing them tonight, they have now carried hundreds of thousands – maybe millions – of people by modeling and inspiring compassion and empathy; by shattering the idea of 'otherness' and by showing what social justice should look like for every person. … Thank you so much for this."

Back home in Los Angeles, social justice is in short supply for some denizens of the city, as depicted in the riveting National Geographic documentary LA 92. Using archival footage, much of which had not previously been seen publicly, filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T. J. Martin examine the civil unrest that erupted after the April 1992 "not guilty" verdicts awarded the four white police officers caught on videotape beating African-American Rodney King.

Arson and looting exacted a $1 billion toll on the city, unsurpassed as the highest cost of civil disturbance in U.S. history. Sixty-three people were killed and 2300 injured.

The film connects the city's 1965 Watts riots to the 1992 riots and chronicles law enforcement practices under then-police chief Darryl Gates. Amidst a background of a city in flames is footage of a gathering where then-City Councilmember Rita Walters tells her constituents, "We tell our children one more time: Stay cool. Be calm. That for African-American children and adults, freedom is not yet a reality in the United States."

Said Martin in acceptance, after thanking his collaborators and the Academy, "Here's my opportunity to get up on a soapbox. I think it's a misconception that film, media, art, creates change. I venture to say that what we do together, everybody in this room, we create a space, and we create material that gives the potential to inspire change.

"I truly believe from the depths of my heart that people create change. I think action, commitment and dedication from human beings is what creates change. We as artists are only one facet  to help illuminate the bigger picture, and the bigger conversation.

"So with that in mind, we as a team would also like to thank and share this award with everyone who's really on the front lines of inspiring us to think deeper about our society: … underpaid educators, social workers, individuals working in public service, community leaders who are out there day-to-day trying to be facilitators of empathy and care.

"Social change is truly a collaborative effort, and it's not just in our hands. And last but certainly not least, we'd like to honor all the individuals who lived through the civil unrest. And we're willing to continue the conversation about race, class and injustice by sharing your stories. Thank you very much."

Comedy shows were also recognized this night, among them One Day at a Time, the Netflix sitcom that re-imagines the 1975-1984 CBS series about an Indianapolis single mom and her two daughters as a show about a contemporary Cuban-American single mom and her family in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. With Norman Lear again one of its executive producers, the show uses comedy to tell stories and provide commentary about social issues, including veterans' mental health, immigration and teenage LGBTQ concerns.

Mom Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado) is an Afghanistan veteran and nurse suffering from PTSD. She has a son Alex (Marcel Ruiz) and daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez), who comes out as lesbian. And she has a feisty mother, Lydia (Rita Moreno, in fine scene-stealing form).

There are also the apartment-house super Schneider (Todd Grinnell), the only character from the first series, whose father has bought him the building, and Penelope's boss, Dr. Leslie Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky). Though the Alvarez family is Cuban and proud of it, many of their stories resonate with families the world over, as they deal with concerns that all families face.

"This show really comes so much from our hearts, and our cast, and our crew and our writers' hearts," said Mike Royce, who accepted with fellow executive producer and showrunner Gloria Calderón Kellett. He himself invoked the power of television in relating how his daughter Mia came out to her parents in her college essay:

" … She wrote about seeing herself for the first time on TV in [the Nickelodeon animated series] The Legend of Korra, when a girl was in a relationship with another girl. She wrote, 'Here was one of my favorite franchises as a young kid, showing me it was normal to be, well, me. So now I want to bring that feeling to other young kids.' So I stole her idea!"

Calderón Kellett praised her male colleagues and noted, "Seeing yourself on TV, and being represented, is extremely powerful. It says, 'I belong.' And likewise, not seeing yourself on TV also sends a message, that you're invisible, that you don't have a voice. Representation is so important.

"As a first-generation Cuban American – my parents came here in 1962 not knowing a word of English – the only Cubans I saw on TV were Ricky Ricardo, which was awesome, and Scarface. So it was an honor and a privilege to throw my hat in the ring, to say, 'This is what my family is like.'

"Especially right now, Latinos are such an important part of the great tapestry of this country, so to be able to have a family on television every week that's hardworking, and middle class, and is able to talk about veterans' issues and LGBTQ issues, with heart and humor and love, is such a great privilege for us. We want you to know that we are committed to doing these types of stories."

The other programs honored were Andi Mack (Disney Channel), Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS) and 13 Reasons Why (Netflix).

Howard Meltzer, CSA is chair of the Honors Selection Committee; Mitch Waldow is vice-chair. The Academy Honors was founded by John Shaffner, Lynn Roth and Dick Askin.

Watch interviews with the honorees and acceptance speeches here.


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