‘12 Years Slave,’ Variety's Justin Chang

It was a night of laughs and tributes to “12 Years a Slave,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station” and other pics at the fifth annual African-American Film Critics Assn. awards.

Variety chief film critic Justin Chang was also honored by the org with its inaugural Roger Ebert Award.

Top film kudos went to slavery drama “12 Years a Slave,” with “Frozen,” “Fruitvale Station,” docu “American Promise” and “Mother of George” also receiving awards. Acting nods were presented to Sandra Bullock, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Oprah Winfrey.

AAFCA, founded in 2003, recognizes films with universal appeal to the African-American community and also honors the work of filmmakers and actors of African descent.

The event, held at the Taglyan Cultural Complex, marked the formal presentation of the awards after the winners were announced on Dec. 18. In addition to honoring the actors and films selected by the AAFCA, the org also presented special achievement kudos to AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, DGA president Paris Barclay, Robert and Harvey Weinstein, Fox Searchlight SVP of production Zola Mashariki and Variety’s own chief film critic Justin Chang.

Other guests in attendance included “12 Years a Slave” screenwriter John Ridley, “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler, Robert Townsend, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” creator Shonda Rhimes, GLAAD spokesman Wilson Cruz, Esai Morales, Niecy Nash and Wendy Raquel Robinson.

AAFCA founder and president Gil Robertson told the story of how the org first began after he received a call from longtime friend  and filmmaker Ava DuVernay while he was shopping in the meat section of a Whole Foods Market.

Hosts Orlando Jones and Salli Richardson-Whitfield then kicked things off on a light-hearted note as Jones joked, “I just want to clear up a few things. About four ladies walked up to me and asked me if I was the little boy from ‘Everybody Hates Chris’ and I want to be clear – I’m a grown man!”

Later in the evening, Chang was honored as the recipient of the inaugural Roger Ebert award, presented by the late film critic’s stepdaughter Sonia Evans.

“You don’t get a degree in film criticism,” Evans said. “It’s a gift, a passion for expressing a love for an art form that few are fortunate to have – and get paid for.”

Chang, who cited Ebert as one of his own influences as a film critic, has spent nearly a decade pursuing this passion at Variety.

“Roger really stood for diversity,” Chang said. “He was a voice and an advocate and he did it effortlessly and with great sensitivity and grace.

Chang also got a laugh from the audience as he remarked “I’m probably the first Asian-American critic receiving an award named after a white critic from an African-American critics group.”

While many of the actors being honored were not able to attend the ceremony – Lupita Nyong’o acknowledged her breakout performance prize via a recorded video message and Whitaker accepted the best supporting actress award on behalf of his “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” co-star Winfrey – Ridley fought back tears as he took the stage to receive the best screenplay kudos and Whitaker, also recognized as a producer of best independent film winner “Fruitvale Station,” accepted his nod for best actor for “The Butler.”

Whitaker acknowledged the contributions to civil rights made by people like Eugene Allen, who inspired his “Butler” character Cecil Gaines, and discussed the importance of honoring their legacy.

“We need to look at ourselves in the photographs taken tonight and ask ourselves what we stand for,” Whitaker explained. “Let Cecil Gaines be a reminder that there are so many different ways to change the world and that any one of us has the capacity to be a force for good on this earth.”

(Pictured: DGA president Paris Barclay and Variety’s Justin Chang)

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