Jelani Cobb on Feb. 13, 2013. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Jelani Cobb on Feb. 13, 2013. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

The Writers Guild of America, East has announced the creation of the Walter Bernstein Award, which will be presented for the first time at the 69th annual Writers Guild Awards at New York’s Edison Ballroom on February 19, 2017.

The first recipient of the Walter Bernstein Award will be Jelani Cobb, whose FRONTLINE documentary “Policing the Police” (which we highlighted on this blog) explores the complexities involved in reforming the Newark Police Department and its fractured relationship with the community.

Named in honor of one of the Writers Guild of America, East’s most distinguished and courageous members, the Walter Bernstein Award is presented to honor writers who have demonstrated with creativity, grace and bravery a willingness to confront social injustice in the face of adversity.

Now 97 years-old, Bernstein became a member of the Writers Guild of America, East in December 1954. He was among the writers named to Hollywood’s infamous Blacklist in the 1950s and spent the next decade writing under various pseudonyms. His credits include the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “The Front” (1976), a cinematic classic about a small-time bookie (Woody Allen) who becomes the stand-in for a group of blacklisted writers. “The Front” won the Writers Guild Award for Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen in 1977.

Bernstein’s writing consistently elevated political and social issues to mainstream audiences in films like “Fail-Safe,” a 1964 Cold War thriller film directed by Sidney Lumet about how misinformation leads to an impending nuclear catastrophe between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the Emmy-winning “Miss Evers’ Boys” (1997), which told the true story about how the U.S. government used poor, rural black men as guinea pigs to test the effects of syphilis.

“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,” said Michael Winship, President of the Writers Guild of America, East.

In the acclaimed FRONTLINE documentary “Policing the Police,” Jelani Cobb embedded with two detectives in the Newark Police Department’s gang unit to witness firsthand how undercover officers operate in “The Most Dangerous City in the Nation.” Cobb uses the documentary to illustrate how decades of discord and distrust must be addressed in order to repair relations with the community following a July 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Justice that showed Newark’s police had engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional conduct.

One of the foremost experts on post-Civil War African American history, Cobb has embraced the role of activist journalist and the risks involved with putting oneself on the front line of social justice. As a staff writer for the New Yorker, he has tirelessly 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.

Cobb noted “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.”

The 2017 Writers Guild Awards New York ceremony will be hosted by Lewis Black.

The WGA awards will be presented at concurrent ceremonies on Sunday, February 19, 2017, in New York City at the Edison Ballroom and in Los Angeles at the Beverly Hilton. For more information about the 2017 Writers Guild Awards, visit or