Friday, January 25, 2013

The Stanley Kramer Award: Honoring Films that have Something to Say

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, critics and audiences have been wowed by Fruitvale, a taut drama based on the shooting death of a 22-year-old black man by Oakland transit police on New Year's Day, 2009. Fruitvale, a debut feature by writer-director Ryan Coogler, has been purchased by the Weinstein brothers for $2.5 million, so its future is in good hands. But Scott Foundas recently griped in the Village Voice that Fruitvale, for all its virtues, “has generated fewer headlines thus far than Escape From Tomorrow, a gimmick movie that has been the talk of the festival . . . for the simple fact that it was clandestinely shot on location inside various Disney theme parks in California and Florida.”

Here’s the point: almost everyone finds gimmickry more newsworthy than serious social drama. That’s why the Producers Guild’s Stanley Kramer Award is so important. Introduced in 2002, the award annually honors a movie that (to quote a press release) “illuminates provocative social issues in an accessible and elevating fashion.” Past winners have included such socially engaged films as I Am Sam, Antwone Fisher, Hotel Rwanda, Milk, and Precious. Last year the honor went to Angelina Jolie for In the Land of Blood and Honey. This year’s award, to be presented during the Producers Guild ceremony on January 26, will go to a controversial documentary on the Weinstein roster, Bully.

The heart and soul of the Stanley Kramer Award is Stanley’s widow, Karen Sharpe Kramer. She too is a member of the Producers Guild in good standing. In the early days she chose the recipients herself, in consultation with producers Hawk Koch and Bruce Cohen. Now, as the award’s prestige continues to rise, she meets with a committee of five veteran producers to agree on what she calls “that one little gem every year reflecting Stanley’s history and legacy.” Stanley, who as a producer and director made such ground-breaking motion pictures as The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, never aspired to be known for message films. As Karen has reminded me, “Social issue films are very hard sells. People don’t like history lessons. People want to be entertained.” But her late husband, gravitating toward topics that interested him, had a knack for turning out entertaining movies that also “enhanced and elevated humanity, inspiring you to be a better person.”

Regarding the films of 2012, Karen’s personal favorite was Silver Linings Playbook, for its offbeat but uplifting look at mental illness. She also admired Amour, but felt the award should go to an American film. Ultimately the committee chose to honor, for only the second time, a documentary feature. The 2007 honoree was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, for its powerful look at climate change. This year Bully was chosen because it explores an epidemic to which attention must be paid. Studies tell us that that over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year. This makes bullying the most common form of violence experienced by American youngsters. Says Karen,“Six-year-olds are killing themselves now.” Though Bully was short-listed for an Oscar nomination, it didn’t make the final five. So Karen hopes, through the Stanley Kramer Award, to help put the topic back in the news.

She’d wanted to see the presentation made by the likes of Anderson Cooper or Ellen DeGeneres. Now that matters are in the hands of a committee, though, things take longer to organize. As of this morning, the matter was still up in the air, and she says, “I’ll be surprised, like everybody else.”


  1. Wow. What a wonderful award - something to honor movies that tell real and important stories - not sell tickets to make back a $280 million budget. Thanks for shining the spotlight on this one - you added some movies to my watch list today!

  2. Happy to help . . . now I expect a report on how you liked these films. Other Kramer award winners: The Great Debaters, In America (a personal favorite of mine), Good Night and Good Luck. For the 2011 award, Karen and committee couldn't come up with a worthy film, and so they honored Sean Penn for his relief work in Haiti.