Lena Waithe on Sexual Assault Scandal: ‘Stories Will Be Birthed Out of These Turbulent Times’

Lena Waithe (“Master of None”), Scott Silveri (“Speechless”), and George Lopez were among those who spoke Thursday night at the Writers Guild Theater about screenwriting. All of the speakers have made massive accomplishments in telling underrepresented stories spanning race, gender, sexuality, special needs, geopolitics, and labor justice.

“Groundbreakers: Writers Who Moved Hearts and Minds” included back-to-back panels, moderated by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. The event was presented by Writers Guild of America West and WGAW’s Publicity and Marketing Committee in partnership with American Cinematheque and sponsor Final Draft.

In the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment scandal, the first panel addressed the blaze of empowerment that women in Hollywood have recently felt to stand up and use their voices — and the necessity of men to speak up as allies.

“We need men to not be a–holes,” said Waithe, who won an Emmy for her writing on “Master of None.” “And we need the men who aren’t a–holes to call out other men when they see them being a–holes.” She continued with a hopeful message: “Stories will be birthed out of these turbulent times in which we live. I think we’ll see some amazing movie about it. Movies move the culture, so maybe a movie about sexual harassment will help us deal with it in real life.”

Callie Khouri (“Nashville,” “Thelma and Louise”) emphasized that “storytelling depends on empathy.” Brian Yorkey (“13 Reasons Why”) echoed that sentiment during the second panel. “Empathy is the quality that is most lacking in too much public discourse,” he said. He expressed his hope for more people to “really understand and feel what other people are feeling, not in a removed way, but by living through it with them.” He added, “Drama can create and teach empathy.”

In addition to learning to understand other people’s feelings, screenwriting and viewership can help people better understand themselves. “People who are living a story [like the one they see onscreen] can look at that and say, ‘That feels like what I’m going through.’ It can let them know that they’re not alone,” Yorkey said.

Susannah Grant (“Confirmation,” “Erin Brockovich”) declared that “telling the truth is a radical act” in Trump’s America. “The key to telling any story is specificity,” she insisted. “If you tell one person’s story really well, it humanizes everything. Outrage fatigue is significant, but specific connection to people’s hearts and minds can jog that.”

Grant stressed the significance of “the collective emotional experience of watching something together” with an inspiring moviegoing experience. “I saw ‘La La Land’ soon after [Trump’s presidential election]. Everybody walked into the theater like battered shipwreck survivors. They were so isolated, not making eye contact. It was a horrible time. But we walked out of the theater like, ‘Oh, you’re another human being! That’s right! I see myself in you!’ We had such joy together. That’s a profound act,” she said. “It’s my church.”

The first panel featured Waithe, Lopez, Khouri, Silveri, Diane English (“Murphy Brown”), and Ron Nyswaner (“Homeland,” “Philadelphia”).  The second panel included Grant, Yorkey, Tom Musca (“Stand and Deliver”), David Pollock (“M*A*S*H”), and Josh Singer, who co-wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for “Spotlight” with Tom McCarthy, and co-wrote Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated film “The Post” with Liz Hannah.

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