AFI Awards Luncheon: Meryl Streep, Jane Campion, Morgan Freeman and More Salute Honorees, From ‘Belfast’ to ‘West Side Story’

Meryl Streep Jane Campion
Courtesy AFI

Tim Cook chatted with Ted Sarandos, Meryl Streep huddled with Jane Campion, Morgan Freeman (age 85) was deep in conversation with “King Richard’s” Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton (each 15), while “Squid Game” director Hwang Dong-hyuk fulfilled his personal goal of meeting both Guillermo del Toro and Steven Spielberg. Meanwhile, Rita Moreno was warmly greeted by the “CODA” team, including director Sian Heder and stars Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur.

The event was the 22nd annual AFI Awards in an afternoon that is “all about one community of artists,” as AFI prexy-CEO Bob Gazzale said.

AFI announced its honorees on Dec. 8, including 10 films and 10 TV shows, plus three works that don’t fit into AFI’s traditional boundaries of American narrative works.

Films saluted were “CODA,” “Don’t Look Up,” “Dune,” “King Richard,” “Licorice Pizza,” “Nightmare Alley,” “The Power of the Dog,” “Tick, Tick … Boom!” “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and “West Side Story.”

TV works: “Hacks,” “Maid,” “Mare of Easttown,” Reservation Dogs,” “Schmigadoon!” “Succession,” “Ted Lasso,” “The Underground Railroad,” “Wandavision” and “The White Lotus.”

The special honorees were “Belfast,” “Squid Game” and “Summer of Soul (or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised).”

The afternoon event is always attended by industry heavy-hitters. The mood is always upbeat and relaxed, since it’s not televised and there are no acceptance speeches. About 250-plus people assembled in the Beverly Wilshire ballroom, with all hotel staffers and food workers in masks, though most guests eschewed them. (Guests had to show proof of vaccination and results of a recent COVID test before entering.)

After skipping an in-person event last year due to COVID, AFI resumed its popular format: one of the judges read the titles of each honoree, with a brief explanation on why it was chosen, followed by a one-minute clip.

Other guests in attendance included Paul Thomas Anderson, Caitríona Balfe, Murray Bartlett, Ashley Nicole Black, Kenneth Branagh, Dove Cameron, Bradley Cooper, Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ariana DeBose, Eugenio Derbez, Daniel Durant, Aunjanue Ellis, Reinaldo Marcus Green, Kathryn Hahn, Sterlin Harjo, William Jackson Harper, Jung Ho-yeon, Paula Huidobro, Barry Jenkins, Keegan-Michael Key, Jeremy Kleiner, Andie MacDowell, Thuso Mbedu, Julianne Nicholson, Sarah Niles, Margaret Qualley, Frank Rich, Jac Schaeffer, J. Smith-Cameron, Sarah Snook, Jeremy Strong, Sean Patrick Thomas, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Denis Villeneuve, Ari Wegner and John Wells.

Among executives on hand were Toby Emmerich, Donna Langley, John Landgraf, Casey Bloys, Charlie Collier, Michael de Luca, Matthew Greenfield, Lisa Jackson, David Linde, Terry Press, Ann Sarnoff, Scott Stuber, Dana Walden and Bob Daly, chairman of the AFI board of directors.

Producer Kevin Messick (repping both “Don’t Look Up” and “Succession”) wore a Ukraine lapel button, while producer Gail Mutrux (the upcoming Apple TV Plus series “Slow Horses”) sported a shirt with Ukraine’s blue-and-gold flag colors.

Gazzale pointed out that 30 AFI grads were represented in the honored works.

Rich Frank, chairman of the TV jury, said that there were 400 eligible TV shows to consider, and the simultaneous release of films on streaming and in theaters made the distinction between film and TV even harder.

Critic Ann Hornaday read the film honorees. Usually, the crowd response is a clue to a film’s best-pic Oscar chances, but this year the applause seemed equally enthusiastic for all the works.

Chris Merrill and his team assembled a brief and dazzling “March of Time” montage of brief clips starting in 1901 and including every ’01 decade through 2021.

The luncheon concluded with another tradition, a “benediction,” which this year was given by Freeman. He paid tribute to Sidney Poitier, who was the founding vice chairman of AFI. Included was a clip of Poitier accepting his AFI Life Achievement Award, telling young Black artists that they should remember “It was never impossible, it was just harder.”

The awards were created in 2000 and immediately became one of the town’s most enjoyed events. Awards are selected by a jury of industry workers, journalists, academics and AFI trustees. According to AFI, “Honorees are selected based on works that advance the art of the moving image; inspire audiences and artists alike; enhance the rich cultural heritage of America’s art form.”