Creative Arts Emmys: 'Free Solo' Sweeps 7 Categories; 'RBG,' 'The Sentence,' 'Leaving Neverland,' 'Our Planet' Also Win Big
Our Planet wins for Documentary Series and Outstanding Narrator Sir David Attenborough
Free Solo met with ultimate approval from Motion Picture Academy voters back in February, winning the Oscar for documentary feature. On Saturday, Television Academy added their overwhelming assent, awarding seven Emmys to the documentary about climber Alex Honnold's breathtaking attempt to scale Yosemite's El Capitan without ropes. Free Solo won every category in which it was nominated:
Free Solo was not nominated for either Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking or Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special - two of the marquee categories for nonfiction work.
In the latter category the Emmy went to Leaving Neverland, the explosive two-part HBO documentary that depicts the late entertainer Michael Jackson as a serial pedophile. The film directed by Dan Reed features the accounts of two men - Wade Robson and James Safechuck - who say Jackson seduced them when they were boys, and engaged in sexual relationships with each of them that lasted for years.
Accepting the Emmy, Reed commended Safechuck and Wade for their "unflinching honesty," adding, "I thank them from the bottom of my heart."
Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with Reed on the Emmy red carpet before the awards show started. He described vitriolic attacks leveled at him by ardent Jackson fans ever since Leaving Neverland's debut.
"It's something that you have to accept if you're going to make a film that touches on the reputation of a star like Michael Jackson," the director noted. "Clearly there are many people out there who believe he couldn't have been a pedophile because he made all these wonderful songs, which doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Because a pedophile can be anyone. But that's [their] logic. So they're looking for little anomalies or little bits of things that they can try and turn into some kind of proof to try and discredit the film and they haven't come up with anything credible at all yet, but there's a whole load of stuff flying around. So if you hadn't watched the film you might think, ohmygod, it's been undermined or whatever, but the fact is it hasn't and it's as true and unassailable now as it was on the day of broadcast."
On Twitter, numerous Jackson fans expressed outrage over the Emmy victory for Leaving Neverland, one of them writing, "The Emmy's [sic] are showing themselves to be easy-bought by their sponsor HBO. A sad day for modern culture that LN even was nominated for anything."
Another Jackson defender tweeted a string of obscenities that included, "F*** Wade and James... F*** Dan Reed... F*** the Emmys. In conclusion, F*** Leaving Neverland."
Other documentary winners were far less controversial than Leaving Neverland. RBG, the film about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, won the Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. It was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year, but lost out to Free Solo.
On stage, directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen praised the justice for her remarkable toughness and resiliency in the face of repeated health challenges. And in a salute to RBG, who is shown in the documentary doing core strength exercises in the gym, the filmmakers got down on the floor and planked.
The Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking Emmy is voted on by a special jury of documentary peer group members. "There is a possibility of one or more than one award given," the Television Academy notes. And indeed, that was the case this year. Along with RBG, an Emmy for Exceptional Merit was also bestowed on The Sentence, the HBO film directed by Rudy Valdez.
The film sheds light on the devastating impact of mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have led to long prison terms for an untold number of nonviolent offenders. One of them was the director's sister, Cindy Shank, who was sentenced to 15 years for having knowledge of drug crimes committed by her ex-boyfriend before his death. The film documents how the Valdez family coped with the absence of Cindy, who had three young girls to raise when she was sent off to prison.
Valdez became a filmmaker expressly to tell the story, convincing his parents and siblings to go along with the project in hopes of promoting sentencing reform.
"I told them [my family] if you let me do that - if you're open and honest and vulnerable I promise you that I will make something good and I will make something for the greater good," Valdez recalled backstage. "It brings me no more joy in life than to share this story and have them watch their story have an impact and make a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of other people. We're on the frontlines fighting for justice with their story."
"The Sentence" director Rudy Valdez (center) with fellow Emmy-winning members of the creative team behind the documentary. He's looking at his niece, who appears in the documentary (behind her is her mother, Cindy Shank - Rudy's sister - and the primary focus of the film). Los Angeles, Saturday, September 14, 2019. Photo by Matt Carey
The Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series was claimed by Our Planet, the Netflix nature program. The award went to series producers Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, both well established nature documentary makers, and to Sophie Lanfear, the youngest producer on the Our Planet team.
At the Emmy Documentary Roundtable presented by Nonfictionfilm.com in Los Angeles last month, Lanfear told us she campaigned to direct the "Frozen Worlds" episode of Our Planet, which would involve shooting in frigid climates, including Siberia. She recalled telling Fothergill of her interest, "'I know I'm bottom of the pecking order and I'm never going to get the film I want to make, but just so you know--.' Then he turned 'round and said, 'Yeah, that's fine. No one else wants it.' And I said, 'Perfect!'"
"She has huge determination and huge talent," Scholey said of Lanfear when we spoke on the red carpet. "There have been a lot of films made before about the polar regions... Sophie took a really fresh view."
Sir David Attenborough, the 93-year-old naturalist, narrates Our Planet. He won the Emmy Saturday for Outstanding Narrator, his second consecutive win in that category (he won last year for narrating Blue Planet II).
The nonagenarian was not the oldest Emmy winner Saturday evening, however. That honor went to 97-year-old Norman Lear, who won for Outstanding Variety Special (Live) for his work on Live In Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear's 'All In the Family' and 'The Jeffersons.'
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.