African-American Film Critics Assn. at 15: Confronting a Critical Media Juncture

Gil L Robertson IV and Shawn Edwards AAFCA
Courtesy of AAFCA

Along with virtually every other facet of the entertainment industry, the overwhelmingly monochrome makeup of film criticism has come under increasing scrutiny over the last few years, with a recent USC study finding that white authors wrote 82% of the reviews for last year’s 100 top-grossing films. But while that discussion has only recently penetrated the larger conversation in a significant way, it’s hardly been news to the people directly affected, and one group in particular has been at the forefront of the issue for the last decade and a half.

The African-American Film Critics Assn. was founded 15 years ago by Gil L. Robertson IV and Shawn Edwards, who met on the film junket circuit in New York, and started discussing ways to advocate for greater representation in criticism. Since then, the group has grown to approximately 60 members spread across the U.S., as well as the U.K., Jamaica and South Africa. The organization’s annual year-end awards are as closely tracked as any of the other major critics groups, it maintains partnerships with the major guilds, has established a film critics boot camp program for students, and, starting this week, is presenting a monthlong program on Turner Classic Movies, titled “The Black Experience on Film.”

For Edwards, longtime film critic for Fox 4 News in Kansas City, Mo., the 2003 formation of AAFCA coincided with increasing frustration with his role in the Kansas City Film Critics Circle.

“As the only African-American and the only person of color [in the group], when it came time to discuss issues and vote, I felt like my voice and my perspective was completely drowned out,” he says. “There was no way, as a black person who had a somewhat different perspective on film, that I could make an impact.”

After some back-and-forth, Robertson and Edwards formally founded the org at the St. Regis Hotel in Los Angeles, sketching out a mission statement on the back of a napkin. Per Robertson, their objectives were threefold:

“It just sort of reached a point where we felt there was a need to address some of our issues and concerns collectively in order to have more impact,” he says. “On the other side, there was a concern where we were being approached by talent who were questioning why they weren’t being included in junket opportunities, high-visibility opportunities where they could promote their involvement in a certain movie, and through that opportunity promote their careers. And the third piece, the most important piece, was providing a pipeline for the next generation of African-American or black young people who were looking to enter [arts and entertainment] journalism or film criticism.”

Recruiting a handful of what Robertson calls “fellow literary nomads” from the junket circuit, AAFCA assembled a top 10 list for the year’s end, topped by “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” The list got some ink, but plenty of critics’ organizations issue year-end awards, and from the beginning a key distinction of AAFCA was Robertson’s efforts to expand the organization’s outreach year-round. The org partnered first with the NAACP Image Awards, and reached out to the likes of the DGA, PGA and WGA. They minted an AAFCA Seal of Approval designation for films deemed noteworthy, and partnered with L.A.’s Pan-African Film Festival. And after expanding from an initial top 10 list to a full slate of awards (last year, it gave out 18), the group launched an annual awards ceremony in 2009, with the help of then-publicist Ava DuVernay.

“To us it’s plain and clear: black people see all kinds of movies, not just movies that black people are in.”
Gil L. Robertson IV

“I’ve known Gil for over a decade,” DuVernay says. “I was a publicist and I used to pitch his syndicated column, the Robertson Treatment. We worked together on many stories. I remember his support when I took the first steps to become a filmmaker. And around the same time, I remember him launching AAFCA. We both were working on new ventures, getting out of our comfort zones.”

“Bottom line, she was able to bring the studio to help the venture,” Robertson says. “Warner Bros. became our first studio partner in being able to produce a live event, and that was totally due to Ava. I’ve always been real clear that my background is in journalism, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. So that was a pivotal year for us, and then it was just off to the races.”

Even with the awards, however, AAFCA has faced an issue familiar to many critics of color: the assumption that critics of a particular ethnicity are somehow exclusively interested in films from their own community. While the group has certainly been proactive in recognizing films from African-American filmmakers like “The Great Debaters,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Selma” and most recently “Get Out” with top honors, it’s also just as liable to lean toward the likes of “The Tree of Life,” “The Social Network” or “The Dark Knight.”

“You don’t have to be black to win an AAFCA award,” Robertson says, “and that was actually an enormous wall to climb, because the first year we started giving awards in talent categories, Felicity Huffman won for best actress. To say that there were people in the industry who were unhappy is an understatement. They just couldn’t seem to understand what we were doing, but to us it’s plain and clear: black people see all kinds of movies, not just movies that black people are in.”

As every corner of the entertainment industry is slowly being forced to confront their failures in inclusion, entertainment media has another issue that makes finding solutions even trickier: The shrinking numbers of traditional film criticism positions.

As Edwards explains: “How do you make your ranks more diverse? Well, it comes down to a jobs issue, and then the jobs issue comes down to an outlets issue. So the issue becomes are there enough outlets, and are these outlets able to support bringing on more people to make their offices more diverse? And unless you really have the money to create your own outlet, it’s gonna be hard.

Film critic and AAFCA member Carla Renata on set shooting TCM’s program “The Black Experience on Film.”
Courtesy of TCM

“And then the other problem, even if you have the resources to start your own outlet, it’s extremely difficult to become credible. How do you get the studios to recognize your outlet as legit? How do you get the studios to recognize your outlet enough to give access to screenings, or interviews with talent, or advance material? It’s an extremely difficult route to travel if you’re not already entrenched, or part of an outlet that the studios already give access to.”

As DuVernay notes: “The conversation has been constant in communities of color. That the dominant press and industry trades haven’t considered the issue over the past several decades is unfortunately accepted and expected.”

Access was an initial struggle for AAFCA member Carla Renata, who maintains her own outlet, The Curvy Film Critic, and co-hosts the online review series Black Tomatoes.

“When you’re new on the scene and people don’t know you, your name, your reputation, your educational background, they just see you as someone trying to get next to a celebrity,” she says. “So Gil and AAFCA assisted me greatly in getting access to festivals like Sundance, which is huge, and getting access to interviews with filmmakers and stars when the studio or the publicist might have been like, ‘hmm, no we don’t think so.’ As a result of being part of AAFCA, I was featured in an L.A. Times article [by Tre’vell Anderson] about critics of color. After that article, I did not have an access problem anymore. The phone wouldn’t stop ringing, the emails wouldn’t stop coming. And that was a beautiful thing.”

Renata also points to another unusual aspect of AAFCA: its gender balance. With Robertson estimating the org’s makeup as roughly 65% female, AAFCA is one of very few non-male-dominated critics groups.

For Edwards, as the org pursues partnerships and expands its outreach programs for young prospective critics, creating more openings remains AAFCA’s guiding principle. “We’ve got to open the door and make it easier and provide more access and more understanding that they can create some platforms where there is some sort of job creation and there are a lot more opportunities,” he says. “Where the idea of being a black film critic is not looked at as an oddity, but something that you can actually do as a profession and feed your family and take it to the next level.”