(BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.) — Although the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) Awards unfolded within the glamorous Beverly Hilton Hotel, the February 19 ceremony was loaded with speeches about public service, civic action, and the responsibility of a writer to stay true to his or her unique voice.
“I can’t say that writing will bring you closer to being on this stage,” said Moonlight writer-director Barry Jenkins, whose work won one of the night’s big prizes, “but I can say, from my own experience, that writing will bring you closer to who you are.”
Though Moonlight bested industry darling La La Land in the Original Screenplay category, it was drawn from an unproduced, semi-autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney and will compete this Sunday for a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award. The intensely intimate film follows the life of a young, black boy who struggles to transcend poverty and to make peace with his own sexuality.
Though Moonlight’s story is flooded with humanity and specificity, few would be quick to call it “mainstream” fare. The same might also be said for Atlanta—which, on the television end of the evening, took home not only the Best New Series award but also the trophy for Best Comedy Series.
“We’re first-time writers, a lot of us,” said Atlanta scribe Stephen Glover, who hit the stage with palpable enthusiasm, “and it’s just crazy that it worked out so [well]!”
Atlanta, a passion project from Community star Donald Glover, follows two cousins who juggle improving the lives of their families while pursuing success in rap music. With just 10 episodes under its belt, the freshman comedy has already picked up awards from the Golden Globes, the American Film Institute, and the Producers Guild of America.
Arrival—which deployed a brilliant female scientist, a thoughtful family drama, and a time-bending narrative to defy Hollywood notions of marketability—also found success on awards night, nabbing the prize for Best Adapted Screenplay.
“Stay curious, keep asking questions, and embrace critical thinking,” said Arrival’s screenwriter, Eric Heisserer. “It’s not only how great storytelling survives, it’s how science prevails.”
The courageous act of telling personal, and sometimes controversial, stories was even reflected by many of the evening’s career achievement award recipients. Upon introducing Laurel Award recipient Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), actor Jeff Daniels drilled directly to the heart of the Sorkin experience and found a message for writers at large.
“Great writers have a singular voice, a command of the craft, and something to say,” Daniels said. “That’s Aaron.”
Later, writer-director Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) was presented with the guild’s Valentine Davies Award for Humanitarian Service. Curtis, who serves as co-founder and vice-chair of the famine relief initiative Comic Relief, encouraged the audience to set aside time for active community service.
“To make things happen, you have to make things,” Curtis said. “Whatever you do, I ask you to look at those busy diaries of yours…and make some little extraordinary thing that [could] change hearts and minds and raise some money.”
In the end, the WGAW awards proved to be as much about speaking up and living fully as they were about writing well. Academy Award-winning writer-director Oliver Stone, who received the guild’s Laurel Award for Screenwriting, offered potent advice to fellow storytellers who may be tempted to chase the market.
“Try to find not what the crowd wants so that you can be successful,” Stone said, “but try instead to find the true inner meaning of your life here on Earth.”