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Behind-the-Scenes at Hollywood’s Other Awards Ceremony: 2019’s Spirit Awards Honor Progressive, Diverse, Inclusive Indies

Ed Rampell: Big budget studio productions, superhero, special effects-driven pictures, sequels and “A Star is Boring” remakes need not apply for the Spirit Awards, which pay homage to personal, character-driven cinema that says something about the human condition.
Spirit Awards

Beale Street

Barry Jenkins, winner of the Best Director and Best Feature Film Independent Spirit Awards for If Beale Street Could Talk, proclaimclosed to the media that “the industry is responding” to America’s current conditions. Jenkins urged, “See the films nominated” for 2019’s Spirit Awards, which honor features and documentaries reflecting Film Independent’s mission statement to: “champion the cause of independent film and support a community of artists who embody diversity, innovation and uniqueness of vision.” Big budget studio productions, superhero, special effects-driven pictures, sequels and “A Star is Boring” remakes need not apply for the Spirit Awards, which pay homage to personal, character-driven cinema that says something about the human condition.

Spirit Awards

Boots Riley

Boots Riley, who scored the Best First Feature accolade for the anti-capitalist Sorry to Bother You, told journalists that winning is “an honor, affirmation, more people will see our films. It’s not just for me, it’s for other filmmakers with independent vision.” Plus, awards enable their winners to make more movies, which Jenkins - who also co-won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for 2016’s Moonlight, which also scored the Best Picture Academy Award - acknowledged, too.

Jenkins, Riley and other Film Independent victors addressed the media during the 34th Film Independent Spirit Awards ceremony on Feb. 23 in a press lounge beside the elaborate, huge tent constructed on the sands of Santa Monica Beach, where the star-studded prize-giving event was presented and televised live on the IFC channel. The two-hour and a half show is one of Los Angeles’s three top annual tributes to cinema artists, along with the Academy Award and Golden Globe yearly rituals.

In their acceptance speeches, comments to the fourth estate and most importantly, in their indies, the winners tackled ethnic, gender, sexual preference, immigration, veteran and class issues in the age of Trump. The Swaziland-born Richard E. Grant, whose father was the last education minister in that British colony before the African nation gained its independence in 1968, has long co-starred in independent-minded features, such as 1997’s A Merry War, an adaptation of a George Orwell novel, but called his Best Supporting Male Spirit Award for the first major prize he’d snagged. I asked Grant about AIDs, the disease Jack Hock - his real life character in Can You Ever Forgive Me? - died of.

Richard E. Grant

Richard E. Grant

“Now there is a cure for AIDs that did not exist in the 1980s and 1990s,” said Grant. “It seemed impossible then that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison and become South Africa’s president in a historical blink. Now people can survive - I wish [today ’s treatments] were available sooner… This film is a homage to a generation of men I knew” who were “wiped out” by the AIDs epidemic. Grant also praised co-star Melissa McCarthy, who played forger Lee Israel, plus Marielle Heller, the female director of Forgive, which has been described as “the Odd Couple Midnight Cowboy.”

Forgive’s co-writer Nicole Holofcener, who co-won with Jeff Whitty the Best Screenplay Spirit Award, gushed, “It’s so wonderful that this movie about two crazy, untrustworthy lonely gay alcoholics got made. It just proves that outlier characters, who you would rather not spend time with, who aren’t likeable, can still be entertaining and worthy of our love.” In response to my question regarding the forging of bogus letters by renowned authors in Forgive, Holofcener asserted: “It’s bad. I fear my children [might plagiarize]. Don’t do it.”

The 92-minute En El Septimo Dia, about undocumented Mexican immigrants in Brooklyn won the John Cassavetes Award, honoring the best feature made for under $5000,000, named after the exemplar of indie filmmaking, who shot low budge movies such as the 1970s’ Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence. A trio of Septimo’s awardees (minus director Jim McKay) spoke - sometimes in Spanish - to the press, declaring, “Make America Spiritual Again.” When I asked them their view on Trump, the wall and immigration, Latino co-star Genoel Ramírez insisted: “Mexicans reflect the opposite of what’s mentioned about us. [This film shows] the hassles we go through. We’re nor criminals.” Mexican producer Lindsey Cordero added, “Immigrants are part of the texture of this country. We’re regular people.”

Debra Granik, who’d launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career with 2010’s Winter’s Bone and directed 2018’s Leave No Trace, won the Bonnie Award, which bestows a $50,000 grant upon recipients. As Trace dramatizes the plight of veterans suffering from PTSD I asked Granik, who said she was influenced by British Kitchen Sink films and Italian Neo-Realism, about those topics. “I worked for three years on a documentary about a veteran,” replied Granik, referring to 2014’s Stray Dog about a Vietnam vet. “I learned I really had to be educated and do a lot of research to understand the aftermath of combat. I was influenced by resources [including] the [1985 documentary] Soldiers in Hiding, and the important input of veterans in the Portland area,” where much of Trace was shot.

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Viggo Mortnsen

Viggo Mortnsen

Upon winning the Best International Film Spirit Award for the Mexico-set, Spanish language Roma, auteur Alfonso Cuarón opined that cinema is “at a moment of greater diversity that will make this category irrelevant.” The director told the media, “what excites me most [about the success of Roma, which received 10 Oscar noms, including for Best Picture, and won in three categories, including for Best Foreign Language Film] is that it opened discussions about domestic workers. The National Domestic Workers Alliance uses Roma as a platform… [the subjects of] racism and social class have been prevalent for centuries.”

Accepting his Best First Feature Spirit Award, Boots Riley declared: “The CIA is trying to have a coup in Venezuela and we should all be putting our voices out to stop the U.S. from having regime change for oil in Venezuela.” In the press lounge I asked the Sorry to Bother You writer/director his view of Trump. “He’s the newest incarnation, if in fact one of the worst, but he’s one stair step in a series of stair steps being built for a long time.”

The anti-imperialist frontman for The Coup hip-hop band went on to blast the CIA: “Don’t forget, every time there’s regime change in a country - Iraq; Chile in 1973 - they say the leaders lost support, they’re dictators, the people want change. Under the guise of humanitarian aid they sneak guns to rightwing forces. Russians did that to Ukraine but nobody says the same thing about the U.S. working with opposition forces. Growing up in Brooklyn I got involved with struggles for material reasons against the power that profits. We can change things by withholding our labor. That’s a tactic for social change in my movie,” stated the outspoken Riley.

Morgan Neville won the Best Documentary Spirit Award for Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and applied the ethos of the doc’s subject, Fred Rogers, to the Trump era. “Who knew this was the moment to tell this story? A film with the right message at the right moment in this toxic, shithole world… It’s kind of heartbreaking to think what [Mr. Rogers] preached and the world we’re in nowadays. Never give up hope. He’d address root causes. We have to live in a neighborhood together and be good neighbors. It’s a wonderful sign that so many people saw it. Being celebrated tonight we celebrate ourselves,” said the documentarian, who also made 2015’s Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal.

Glenn Close

Glenn Close

Winning the Best Female Lead Spirit Award for The Wife and accompanied by her adorable doggy date, the Havanese Pip, Glenn Close philosophized about changing gender roles. “My mom could be very supportive of my father. She was a woman who chose to be in the background… There are so many invisible people in the world, who do the work that keeps us going. Roma is a perfect example of one of the invisible. But every single person has a story,” ruminated the star of 1987’s Fatal Attraction, whose jilted character insisted, “I’m not gonna be ignored!”

The last talent to take questions in the press lounge was Best Director winner Barry Jenkins, whose If Beale Street Could Talk won the Best Feature Spirit Awards, for which Regina King won the Best Supporting Female prize (as she would the following night at the Oscars). Jenkins stressed that his adaptation of the 1974 novel proved that “James Baldwin is still relevant today. The issue of mass incarceration” remains timely. Jenkins expressed satisfaction at being able to “adapt my favorite author. Black authors have been neglected - not just by Hollywood, but by the canon… Black authors have not been adapted enough.”

When I asked Jenkins to comment on the state of race relations under Trump, he made a sort of disgusted, exasperated expression. “I know where you’re coming from, brother. We want to live under one umbrella, united by race and gender.”

My evening had a perfect Hollywood ending - I drove from Santa Monica to Emerson College on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, where actor Charles Reese presented the one-man show An Evening in History with James Baldwin, presented by the Eboni LA Alumni Association as part of its Black History Month programming.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

Film historian/critic Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.”