NAACP Image Awards Looks Beyond #OscarsSoWhite

Like many, Roslyn Brock watched closely as 2017 became a banner year for diversity at the Oscars.

In a historic showing, minority actors were nominated in the Academy Awards’ four major categories. On top of that Joi McMillon became the first black woman to be nominated for film editing and a whopping four out of the five of the nominated documentary features came from black filmmakers.

But Brock, the NAACP’s board chairman, knows it is not a coincidence that such progress came after Academy voters nominated all white actors for the past two years, inspiring the social-media moniker #OscarsSoWhite. On the positive side, the backlash also emboldened Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs to add 600 members.

While these are steps in the right direction, Brock argues such advancements by the Academy only serve to underscore how necessary her organization’s Image Awards ceremony is. It will take place Feb. 11 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium this year. The kudofest, now in its 48th incarnation, recognizes the work of people of color across the arts, from film to TV, music, and literature.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we didn’t have to say this is the largest group of nominees or the first of anything?” Brock asks. “It should be second nature that we see each other as equals and celebrate the innate talent within our diverse communities in the United States. But until such time as people aren’t colorblind and are not racist and bigoted and discriminatory, we’ll continue to be the NAACP and advance those in front of and behind the camera.”

Beyond film, there have been promising strides toward diversity in TV, be it “Atlanta,” “Black-ish” or the Latina “One Day at a Time” reboot. Recent victories by people of color at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards are further encouraging signs — both for those also nominated for Oscars and Hollywood in general.

But diversity concerns won’t go away overnight. One could even argue that the back-to-back Oscar wins for Alejandro G.  Iñárritu, the first Mexican to have been nominated for director, were grievously underplayed amid the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.

This year at least, the Oscar and the Image Award nominees overlap significantly, including many of the same frontrunners.

For instance, “Fences,” “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight” have all been nominated for top film honors by both organizations. Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Mahershala Ali, and Ruth Negga have also been nominated in both.

But the Image Awards went further, nominating “Loving,” the story about an interracial couple fighting for their marriage in Virginia, for best film; Negga is the sole Oscar nominee from that film. It also nominated “Hidden Figures” star Taraji P. Henson, another contender who missed out on an Oscar nomination.

“Collateral Beauty” headliner Will Smith; Don Cheadle, star and director of the Miles Davis-inspired film “Miles Ahead”; and “Queen of Katwe” stars Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, and Madina Nalwanga also scored Image nods after falling short of Golden Globes and SAG Awards recognition for their work.

The Images Awards was also one of the few organizations to honor Nate Parker’s ambitious “The Birth of a Nation,” following the controversy that erupted about the star-director’s past last year.

“The NAACP Image Awards will always remain relevant and creates a balance for the lack in all other awards,” says Vanzil Burke, co-founder of the Hollywood Diversity Assn. The Oscars may be more inclusive this year, but “in the next three years, we will see where the difference really lies.”

Diversity has been an issue before. As recently as 1998, there were no Oscar nominees of color in any major Academy Award categories. The NAACP Image Awards did away with its film actress category in 1990 and 1987 because there weren’t enough black women in leading roles to nominate. Such deficits are more reflective of the industry’s shortcomings than that of the Academy and the NAACP.

But there have been more roles for people of color in films and TV recently. The #OscarsSoWhite controversy was fueled by the perception that worthy contenders unfairly missed out.

Barna Donovan, a professor of communications at New Jersey’s St. Peters University, cites the work of Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation,” Michael B. Jordan in “Creed” and his director, Ryan Coogler, as three such worthies.

“A number of African-American filmmakers and performers last year were unfairly overlooked,” Donovan says. “I am also curious of the filmmakers and actors of color nominated now, how many will actually win?”
Jordan and Coogler won NAACP Image Awards for actor and director last year, and Elba (who won a SAG award despite the Oscar snub) was nominated.

The Image Awards’ inclusive nature sometimes causes controversy of its own. But the organization doesn’t shy away from films it likes, including “The Birth of a Nation,” nominated in six categories. The movie became a cause celebre at Sundance, but Parker’s award hopes dimmed when a past rape charge, acquittal, and his perceived dismissiveness marred his image and subsequently that of the film.

NAACP Image Awards nominated it for best picture and independent picture, and Parker for lead actor, direction, and writing; Aja Naomi King received a supporting actress nom for her performance.

Although largely overlooked by other groups during award season, Parker did receive a nom from the Directors Guild for achievement as a first-time director.

Brock stands by the Image Awards praise for Parker and “The Birth of a Nation.”

“We are a big-tent organization,” Brock says. “We’re not interested in just looking at people in a narrow form. There’s so much depth in our community especially in genres where African-Americans show up and show up strong.

Nate Parker presented a body of work and we’re honoring him for the work he contributed to the industry. It’s phenomenal work, he did it on his own, and it was an excellent movie.”

Brock is also proud that “Loving” garnered Image Awards nominations in both the motion picture and independent motion picture categories.

“‘Loving,’ addresses miscegenation laws in our country — it wasn’t too long ago that blacks couldn’t marry whites. But this powerful piece of prose also shows that these were real people who lived real lives and changed the course of our society,” Brock says.

“Images are powerful and can be game changers and that’s why our awards show and others are so important.”

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