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Hollywood Honors Inspirational Writing with Humanitas Prize - 2003-07-11

This year's recipients of the Humanitas Prize, a Hollywood honor for inspirational writing, include Antwone Fisher, whose story of courage and healing was brought to the motion picture screen by actor Denzel Washington.

Eleven writers from television and film were honored for stories that show the humanizing potential of entertainment.

"It started 29 years ago, and the idea of the Humanitas prize is to reward and encourage writers who write scripts that mean something and give us a vision of how we can live together as a human family," explained Father Frank Desiderio, president of the Humanitas Prize.

The autobiographical screenplay Antwone Fisher won the prize for feature films. The movie tells the story of a man who suffered childhood abuse after his family abandoned him. Later, as an angry young sailor, he gets help and finds healing through a Navy psychiatrist, and embarks on a search for his family.

Young actor Malcolm Kelley, who played Antwone Fisher at age seven in the film, says it tells a simple story.

"It's a heartbreaking movie about how a guy can find his way home," he said.

Adds Antwone Fisher, writer and subject of the screenplay, it is a story of healing.

"It's about overcoming adversity and it's about being honest and truthful and how hard it is, and about trusting, " said Mr. Fisher.

Antwone Fisher is a drama. Another entry in the feature category was a comedy. Peter Hedges co-wrote the screenplay for About a Boy, which was co-written with brothers Chris and Paul Weitz, the film's directors. It is the story of a man, played by actor Hugh Grant, who pretends to be a father so he can meet and date single mothers.

The writer was also nominated for a Humanitas Prize for another film he wrote called Pieces of April.

"I think they were nominated because they try to shed, not necessarily always an approving light, but a compassionate light on the human condition," he explained. "So it's not that they're necessarily sweet and people do the right thing, but people are trying to do the right thing. And they're stories about people, and how we live, and how hard it is to live with any decency."

William H. Macy co-wrote and starred in another nominated film about the human struggle. As an actor, he earned acclaim and an Oscar nomination for his role in the 1996 film Fargo. This year, the Screen Actors Guild honored him again for his performance in Door to Door, a recent movie made for television. Its screenplay was nominated for a Humanitas Prize.

"It's about a real fellow named Bill Porter who was born with cerebral palsy and was deemed unemployable by the experts," said Mr. Macy. "He had a wonderful mother. He persevered and despite a severe problem walking and talking, he became the champion door-to-door salesman of the Watkins Company. He outsold every other able-bodied man and woman on the staff. They've recently thrown away the record book at the Watkins company because he's the greatest salesman of the millennium, of all times."

The actor and writer says he is attracted to such stories of everyday heroics by ordinary people.

One of this year's prize winning scripts tells a story aimed at children with a darker theme. Dwayne McDuffie won in the children's animation category for an episode of the cartoon series Static Shock.

"It's a story about a teenaged superhero who discovers that his powers are really no match for gun violence," said Mr. McDuffie. "A close friend of his is shot."

Mr. McDuffie explains that the cartoon is a fantasy, but is grounded in real life, and says guns are an issue the writers and producers wanted to deal with.

Father Frank Desiderio says this year's Humanitas Prize nominees covered a range of themes from television and movies, but the nominated screenplays shared a single focus, of people helping people.

"Many of our scripts have at their heart this sense of universal concern for other people and the value of the human family helping each other," said Father Desiderio.

There is much that is mindless in entertainment, says the Catholic priest, but also films and programs that explore life's complexity and offer a positive vision of what it means to be human.