NAACP Image Awards Celebrate Many Cultures, ‘One America’

While controversy around one particular awards show’s racial consciousness simmers, bubbles and boils over, the NAACP Image Awards are determinedly moving forward with its 47th annual ceremony honoring the previous year’s efforts to serve, and reflect, an inclusive America.

Created at the height of the civil-rights movement, the Image Awards officially celebrate “the outstanding achievements and performances of people of color in the arts, as well as those individuals or groups who promote social justice through their creative endeavors.”

To NAACP board chairman Roslyn M. Brock, the awards “give society at large an opportunity to see the vast diversity of artistic achievement and accomplishment from every segment of American society. We celebrate the fact that we are the only multicultural, multi-ethnic awards show, highlighting America’s broad diaspora.”

The Image Awards have gradually expanded their reach to cover motion pictures, television and popular music. Literary works were added in 2002. A total of 54 categories are lined up for the Feb. 5 black-tie ceremony at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, hosted for the third year in a row by “Black-ish” star Anthony Anderson and televised live on TV One.

NAACP president Cornell William Brooks says: “Many artists are recognized with Image Awards long before an Oscar or an Emmy. In effect, in terms of the music and film and television industries, you can think of them as early adopters — early recognizers, if you will.”

He further believes the name “Image Awards” is to be taken seriously, by virtue of the “life and death consequences” of that which mass media propound with regard to people of color.

“You know, by 2040 our society will be mainly comprised of women and ethnic minorities.”
Roslyn M. Brock

The personnel director sitting in front of an African-American applicant, Brooks argues, knows what he’s seen on screen. “We have people who are extraordinarily and prodigiously and immensely talented, competent and hard-working. There are also those who are less so.” He cites the preconceived images police officers often have in their heads when they stop a young African-American man or woman on the street to question them or arrest them.

“We see images (on TV) of African-Americans as law-abiding citizens, and some who are not law-abiding citizens,” says Brooks. “Those images come from Hollywood, They’re not merely a matter of entertainment. They’re a matter of citizenship, and full participation in this society.”

The images represented in 2015’s categories signal a particularly robust sort of diversity. Top TV series run the gamut from “Black-ish” to “Orange Is the New Black” to “Key & Peele” on the comedy side, and “Empire,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” on the drama side.

Competing for the motion picture prize are films examining modern concerns of people of color — “Beasts of No Nation” and “Concussion” — as well as box office smash “Straight Outta Compton”; sentimental sports drama “Creed”; and the hip-hop, coming-of-age yarn (and Sundance prizewinner) “Dope.” All were hits crossing over to audiences of all races and ethnicities, while amassing a total of two nominations from the Motion Picture Academy.

No one denies the Image Awards principally put forward talents whose access to mainstream awards is limited at best. Yet as chairman Brock is quick to point out, not being African-American is no disqualifier for Image Award consideration. Artists of Hispanic (Rita Moreno; America Ferrera) and South Asian (Mindy Kaling; Aziz Ansari) descent have competed, likewise white actors (Bryce Dallas Howard) and R&B headliners (Justin Timberlake). This year, in the writing categories alone, white scribes like Shem Bitterman, Pete Docter and Jill Soloway are in contention, albeit for projects of more than casual minority interest and subject matter as per the NAACP’s overall mission.

Andrea Berloff received the “very gratifying” news of her nomination, with partner Jonathan Herman, for the screenplay of “Compton” weeks prior to a similar designation from the Motion Picture Academy.

“I live in the real world, and I understand the risk of white people writing black stories,” she says. “But I really set out to collaborate with Ice Cube and Dre and Eazy-E’s widow to tell the story they wanted to tell. Their fingerprints are all over it.”

For such a respected organization as the NAACP to find the work worthy of acknowledgment, she says, “meant we achieved what we set out to achieve. It’s not just a biopic about a rap group. It’s a movie that deals with racism in America, and police abuse and First Amendment rights, all these huge themes the music is there to support.”

As it happens, tracking the congruence (or clash) of huge sociopolitical themes and entertainment has been the NAACP’s charge as far back as 1915, when protests were amassed when the megahit — and shockingly unabashed valentine to the Ku Klux Klan — “The Birth of a Nation” was projected at the White House to an approving President Wilson. Combatting negative images, and promoting healthy ones, are two sides of the same activist coin.

“We are wanting what we see on TV to be reflective of the demographics of our nation,” says Brock. “You know, by 2040 our society will be mainly comprised of women and ethnic minorities, and that should be factored into what we see both on the small screen and the big screen. If we truly are ‘one America,’ then we have to believe in diversity and inclusion.”

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