Painful pasts and the way forward were the focus of last Thursday’s WIF Honors 2022. Held in a magenta ballroom at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, the annual event recognizes the achievements of women in the entertainment industry. This year’s honorees included Abbott Elementary creator Quinta Brunson, The Woman King director Gina Prince-Bythewood and Don’t Worry Darling director Olivia Wilde.
The ceremony began like all ceremonies: with Jane Fonda. The veteran actress, who announced her cancer diagnosis last month, was greeted with a standing ovation. Fonda was there to present the second Humanitarian Award, named in her honor, to Michaela Coel, who described her as a “pushing the boundaries” artist who “makes us think about difficult things in new ways.” Personally selecting Coel, Fonda was an early champion of her seminal show I May Destroy You.
Coel is currently on a marathon press tour for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and was unable to accept the award in person. Instead, Lake Bell read aloud a letter from Coel to Fonda. “Your recognition has done so much for its global reach and my mother’s pride in me more than anything I could ever have done,” the letter reads. “I can never repay you for that.”
Coel’s “I May Destroy You,” which won her an Emmy, was loosely based on her own experience of sexual assault. “In ministering to my pain, I seem to have ministered to yours,” Coel wrote in her letter. “It is a strange, beautiful and cosmic dance between us.”
The event focused on the subject of sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry as well as the fight for reproductive rights. WIF CEO Kirsten Schaffer expressed her concerns on the red carpet. Regarding this year’s theme, Forging Forward, Schaffer told POPSUGAR, “There’s a lot of backwards happening right now, so we’re bringing the community together to empower people to keep moving forward.” She noted that calls to the helpline of the organization have doubled in the last month. “We’re not done yet,” added Schaffer.
The fifth anniversary of the #MeToo movement was also a topic. Among the recipients of the Crystal Award For Advocacy were the team behind She Said, the forthcoming adaptation of Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey’s book about her Harvey Weinstein exposé. The New York Times journalists — as well as “She Said” star Carey Mulligan and producer Dede Gardner — were all present to accept the award and participate in the panel discussion that accompanied each presentation.
“We were outsiders,” Kantor said, “but the people here, including the people in this room, helped us.” In the room were three Weinstein accusers: Sarah Ann Masse, Katherine Kendall and Lauren O’Connor, who were asked to stand as the room applauded. Masse and Kendall both also appear in “She Said”. Today, Masse, who accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct in 2017, is helping survivors like herself find opportunities — and find protection from retaliation — through her Hire Survivors Hollywood initiative. Though hopeful for the future, Masse doesn’t believe there has been enough “tangible change” in the industry yet. “We’re moving in the right direction, but we mustn’t have mission drift,” she told POPSUGAR.
She also stressed the need to create a safe environment for victims to come forward. “It took me almost a decade to come forward because of the fear that surrounded it and my worries of retaliation, and then it happened. Even after everything, I still faced retaliation,” she said. “People need to remember that there is real risk and real loss.”
Right now, Weinstein is on trial in Los Angeles. (The disgraced film producer is already serving a 23-year sentence after being convicted of sex crimes at his 2020 New York trial.) Masse said she’s following the LA trial, where Weinstein pleaded guilty to multiple charges of pleaded not guilty to rape and sexual assault: “I know some of these women personally, I know their stories personally, and they need our support. They need to know that we’re behind them already.”
Speaking of the #MeToo anniversary, Happiest Woman Alive author Jessica Knoll said she’s noticed a “shift” in the past five years. She recently adapted her 2015 novel into a film for Netflix, and the story follows a magazine editor’s unsuccessful attempt to erase her high school sexual assault from memory. A year after the novel’s publication, Knoll recounted her own similar experiences in an essay for Lenny Letter. “The world really responded to this essay in kind, which for me was a marked change from how people reacted 17 years ago at the time of my attack,” Knoll told POPSUGAR. “I felt a change in the world.”
As much as the past was mulled over, the future was also celebrated at the WIF Honors. Lili Reinhart received the Max Mara Face of the Future Award. In her acceptance speech, the “Riverdale” actress reflected on her commitment to speaking openly about mental health and body image issues. “Pretty soon I started noticing a lot of negative attention on Twitter, which, let me tell you, is nothing scarier than seeing your name trend on Twitter,” Reinhart said. “I found out the hard way that a lot of people didn’t hear what I had to say.”
Reinhart rattled off some of the criticism she received: “Damn, all this girl ever does is complain or can she shut up for once?” Her response, she said, “was and always will be, absolutely not.”
Viola Davis gave one of the most stirring speeches of the evening. In her tribute to her “Woman King” director, Davis recalled that when they first met, Prince-Bythewood cried over the film. “I knew that despite crying, she would be a good manager of this movie,” Davis said. “This movie required a damn warrior.” At one point Davis recited a verse from “O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman.
In the panel discussion that followed, Davis was joined by her “Woman King” co-stars Thuso Mbedu and Lashana Lynch, who praised Prince-Bythewood for her presence at every stage of the production, from auditioning to Muay Thai lessons. “She was always there and stood up for us,” said Mbedu. The room later erupted in applause when Lynch called Prince-Bythewood’s directorial debut “Love & Basketball.”
In addition to the tour, the cooperation was also celebrated. That’s what Wilde and her creative partner Katie Silberman, who wrote the screenplay for Don’t Worry Darling, said. The couple previously worked together on Booksmart, and there’s a mysterious Marvel project in the pipeline that’s rumored to be taking place in the Spider-Verse. “No one makes you braver than a friend,” Silberman said during her panel.
Wilde, meanwhile, encouraged the room to lean on others for help. “The director’s heroic narrative is complete bullshit. No director ever does it alone,” Wilde said. She later added, “Let’s use the community. Let’s use each other… We’re all trying to do this together. It still feels like we’re so isolated and men don’t feel that way.”
The cast of Abbott Elementary caused a lot of hilarity. Sheryl Lee Ralph was there to present her “work kid,” Brunson, with the Crystal Award For Advocacy, and began her speech by singing Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species,” as she had during her Emmy acceptance speech. Ralph’s voice filled the room as attendees cheered.
The Emmys were a historic milestone for the sitcom — a validation of its reverence and importance. It was also a wild night for the cast. “We went to the ABC party and a lot of people were eating and drinking their heads off,” Lisa Ann Walter told POPSUGAR. “I won’t say who, but there might have been dancing.” Walter also recalled that Ralph took the time to speak to everyone who congratulated her that night. “About an hour and a half into the celebrations, she completely lost her voice and we had to go to work the next day,” Walter recalled. “We were on the set at 6 a.m.”
“She may be young, but she is ready.”
Walter and Ralph both expressed admiration for Brunson, who made history by winning an Emmy at 32. “She may be young, but she’s ready,” Ralph said in her speech. And as Walter told POPSUGAR, “She gave Sheryl and I a vehicle on our show to be working women and to share that relationship. So many people react to it because they know it from their own lives.”
In a particularly emotional moment during her speech, Ralph Brunson praised her support for the underdogs: “Not only is she here to fulfill her own potential, but to help others achieve theirs, as she did for me with my Emmy.” -Win for Best Supporting Actress. Tears welled up in Ralph’s eyes at that point, and she said, “I wrote that and it makes me cry.”
In the panel discussion that followed, Brunson acknowledged the shows and films that shaped her upbringing, including In Living Colour, All That and Sister Act 2, which she said she recognized in Ralph as “those screaming.” Woman” fell in love with Lauryn Hill.” Brunson said she hopes to provide a formative cultural touchstone for future generations. “Artists feel like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I don’t think I’m the only one,” she said. “‘Abbott’ is the springboard for something else.”
How long will Abbott Elementary run?
“Quinta came to this project with such a plan, and she was so prescient about what would happen later. I’ll bet you when she walked in the room just to present the first episode, she had five years on her mind,” Walter told POPSUGAR. “She knows.”
As their panel ended, Brunson and Ralph exchanged “I love you” and rushed home so they could go to bed and be back on set early the next morning. After all, although the evening provided an opportunity for celebration, the work is never done.