NAACP Image Awards Are a Multicultural Kudofest

Rights org embraces year of serious fare and B.O. magnets

Harold Perrineau, Nia Long and Melissa
Alex J. Berliner/abimages

When the NAACP Image Awards were started in 1967 by the L.A. branch of the long-lived civil-rights org, the fight they were fighting was obvious. With quality roles for people of color scarce, and official recognition of those roles even scarcer, the awards were often the lone light for several generations of moviemakers.

But coming off a banner year for films by, about and featuring African-Americans — ranging from the awards juggernaut “12 Years a Slave” (six noms) to the B.O. smash “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (eight noms) and the Sundance-laureled indie “Fruitvale Station” (five) — this year’s Image Awards overlap with other kudos to an unprecedented degree.

Yet the awards make room to go their own way. Oftentimes, this can be a boon. For example, this year’s nominees also include such worthy yet underrepresented contenders as Jono Oliver’s “Home” (nominated for director), indies “Blue Caprice” and “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete,” and documentaries “Call Me Kuchu” and “The New Black.” (Not to mention a nomination for Alfre Woodard’s ace supporting turn in “12 Years,” which has gone largely unmentioned amidst all the praise and nominations for her co-star Lupita Nyong’o.)

Yet the awards can’t help but draw some curious company. Last year’s lead actor race, for example, was likely the first time that Oscar winners Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman saw themselves go head-to-head with Tyler Perry. And this year’s nominations excluded Barkhad Abdi, nominated for the Oscar and the Golden Globe for his supporting perf in “Captain Phillips,” though Terrence Howard was nominated twice in the category, for “The Best Man Holiday” and “The Butler.” (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morris Chestnut are others in the category whose Image nom represents their only awards season attention.) The kudos also often balance pop hits with statelier fare, no easy task in a year that brought both the soul-shaking horrors of “12 Years” and the B.O.-friendly feel-good vibes of “Best Man Holiday,” both of which are up for best picture.

But as Image Awards chairman Leonard James says, the national NAACP org has no say in which films can be submitted, nor in picking the nominees.

The org solicits submissions for its 54 categories — this year saw around 1,500 projects — which are then submitted to its 300-or-so-person nominating committee, comprising entertainment industry pros, as well as NAACP members and community leaders. (James says the committee members range in age from 21 to 85.) Once the committee selects five nominees for each category, the membership of more than 200,000 votes for the winners, tabulated by electronic ballot.

As for the committee’s charge, James says nominees are assessed by a variety of criteria, including the overall excellence of the work, the fairness of its portrayals of people of color and the avoidance of stereotypes. James says the committee is urged to consider groundbreaking work.

The awards have certainly weathered criticism for casting too small a net in the past. Last year, Ava DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere” was shut out in the film and director categories, even though the acclaimed indie broke ground by becoming the first Sundance winner helmed by an African-American woman.

James says the org meets yearly after the kudofest to consider feedback and the awards constantly evolve. But “there is no interchange between members during the nominating process,” he says. As for whether the NAACP has institutional oversight wherein the head office can suggest, implement or disqualify nominations, he is straightforward: “Absolutely not.”

As for charges the awards have grown somewhat diffuse — this year raised eyebrows, with noms for white R&B singers Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke, as well as pics such as “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Gravity,” which do not feature non-white performers in prominent roles — James says the  mission has to evolve with the times.

“In (the early days) the focus was more on celebrating African-Americans in the entertainment industry, and the lack of recognition by other awards bodies. Now we are a very multicultural awards show with an African-American point of view.”