Jelani Cobb, whose Frontline documentary Policing the Police explored the Newark Police Department’s fractured relationship with the city’s African-American community, has been named the first recipient of the WGA West’s newly created Walter Bernstein Award.
In the documentary, Cobb embedded with two Newark police detectives in the department’s gang unit to witness firsthand how undercover officers operate in what’s been called “the most dangerous city in the nation.” Considered one of the top experts in the field of African-American history, Cobb, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has reported on the most pressing race issues of our day, from police brutality and Black Lives Matter to the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act.
The award, which will be presented February 19 at the WGA Awards in New York, is named in honor of one of the WGA East’s most esteemed members and honors writers who have demonstrated with creativity, grace and bravery a willingness to confront social injustice in the face of adversity. Walter Bernstein, 97, became a member of the guild in 1954 and was among the writers named to Hollywood’s infamous Blacklist, spending the next decade writing under various pseudonyms. He would lampoon the use of “fronts” in his Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Front (1976), which starred Woody Allen as a small-time bookie who becomes the stand-in for a group of blacklisted writers.
Said WGA East president Michael Winship: “Through his life and career, Walter Bernstein has epitomized what all serious writers aspire to be, combining exquisite storytelling skills with a clear-eyed, fierce commitment to social justice and freedom of expression, qualities we need more than ever.”
Added Cobb: “Walter Bernstein is an amazing and inspirational figure and a living testament to the power of art and integrity. It is tragic that the lessons of his life regarding art in the face of a hostile political climate remain so relevant today but it reaffirms how significant his example is. I’m beyond humbled to be the first recipient of this award.”