George Pelecanos’ Honorary Orpheus Award Acceptance Speech

george pelecanos speech

Thank you, Kary. Congratulations to all of the filmmakers and writers here at the festival. And many thanks to Fay Lellios, Ersi Danou, and everyone connected with the festival who made this night possible.

I’d like to thank my parents, Pete and Ruby Pelecanos, who never discouraged me, ever, even though they were understandably very concerned that I’d never make a living as writer. My Dad used to call me The Dreamer, but he always said it with affection in his eyes.

I’d also like to thank Jim and Ted Pedas of Washington, D.C., my mentors and friends for whom I worked, at Circle Films, for nine years, early in my career. They were most famously known as the producers of three early films of the Coen Brothers, and they were also exhibitors. The Pedas’s owned over eighty movie screens in Washington. One of them was the legendary Circle Theater, a repertory venue where I and countless Washingtonians got our film education. This is my way of correcting something that I’ve heard all of my life, that Greeks don’t help their own. Jim and Ted are my role models, and two of the finest men I’ve ever known.

I’d also like to recognize two populist writers from the school of social realism who had a major influence on my work. John Steinbeck, of course, and the great Greek American novelist and screenwriter, A.I. Bezzerides.

In 1969, my father took me to a showing of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch at the Allen Theater on New Hampshire Avenue. It was a life changing experience. When I walked out of the theater, I knew right then, at eleven years old, that my goal was to become a writer and filmmaker. It has been hugely satisfying to realize that childhood dream and become a working artist in my own time. I’m humbled and grateful to stand before you tonight.

Please allow me to shift gears to a little history. Between 1900 and 1920, more than 350,000 Greeks immigrated to the United States. Then came the Immigration Act of 1924, or the Johnson Reed Act. Under this law, enacted during the administration of Calvin Coolidge, virtually all Asians were excluded from further immigration. In addition, quotas were set for Southern and Eastern Europeans aspiring to come to America. This was achieved by lawfully limiting the immigration rates to 2% of the population from a specific country based on the 1890 census. Since there were relatively few Greeks, Italians, or Russian or Polish Jews in the US in 1890, immigrants allowed in from those countries, from 1924 onward, were reduced to almost nothing. In terms of numbers, this equated to 100 Greek immigrants per year. In other words, the game was rigged against us.

We tend to create our own mythology about our initial reception in this country. The passage of The Johnson Reed Act suggests a different reality. The truth is, in the early portion of the Twentieth Century, many Americans didn’t want us here. Nevertheless, we came, we stayed, we multiplied, and we thrived.

My father arrived here from Sparti with his parents in 1922, when he was a toddler, two years before the Johnson Reed Act. He just made it in, under the bell. He, and my mother were productive American citizens. My father fought as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II, and later owned his own diner. In the 40s, my mother worked at the Naval Ordinance Labs for the government and did her part in the war effort, then went on to have a solid career as a secretary and executive assistant. But above all she thought of herself as a mother. Her children, my sisters and I, also became productive Americans. The story of my family is not much different than the story of your family. We’ve all made positive contributions to this country. Because we were given the opportunity to do so. Because we were let in.

Several years ago I was sitting in a restaurant in Fort Meyers, Florida, with my mom, who had gone to live out her final days with my sister Jeanne. We were there at 5:15 in the afternoon, to take advantage of the early bird special. A young Latino waiter, an immigrant, came to our table. He was impeccably dressed with a sharp haircut and even better manners, and he treated my mother with deference and respect. After he took our orders in heavily accented English, and retreated to the kitchen, my mother, who had grown up in an extended family with immigrant relatives who also had thick accents, turned to me and said, “How can anyone hate these people?”

The thought I want to leave with you tonight is to remember who we are and where we came from. That we are sitting in this room, many of us prosperous and assimilated, because we were given the opportunity to do so, and we grabbed that opportunity and got where we are today because we earned it. My message isn’t political. It’s not Republican versus Democrat or Liberal versus Conservative. It’s about inclusion over obstruction. It’s about tolerance and empathy over negativity and hate. We’re Greek Americans. We’ve been a vital part of this young country’s growth, this great experiment, because we were given a chance.

Why do I bring this up tonight? Because as influencers in the entertainment business, we Greeks can do our part to ensure that others who are often marginalized in our society are afforded basic opportunities. That means hiring fellow Greeks, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and people who have committed crimes, served their time, and are looking to start anew. It also means hiring and promoting women, who have traditionally been underrepresented in our industry. As Greek Americans, we think of our legacy in terms of our industrious nature, our propensity for hard work, and our achievement of success. All of that is true. But let us open our hearts, and allow humanity to also be a part of our legacy.

I dedicate this award to the memories of my parents and my beloved sister Alice. Thank you for listening, and thank you so much for this tremendous honor.