This is why the NAACP Image Awards has heralded the artistic achievements of people of color for 50 years. The award show’s milestone celebration airs March 30 on TV One with “Black-ish” star Anthony Anderson hosting for the sixth consecutive time.
As for the emphasis on imagery, it’s a concept Frederick Douglass embraced nearly two centuries ago when he weaponized photographs of himself to combat racist viewpoints. Unfortunately, NAACP organizers say, in a fractured society in which racism and bigotry persist, the battle is far from over.
“Frederick Douglass was the most photographed public figure in the 19th century,” says Derrick Johnson, NAACP president and CEO. “During his era, the majority of Americans — white and black — were illiterate. Newspapers and publications utilized cartoon caricatures to convey public policy messages. Within that were very negative stereotypes of African-Americans.
“So Douglass embarked on a campaign to be photographed as a dignified and intelligent African-American man,” Johnson adds. “The power of images really can be that thing that controls public policy debates. D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ and ‘Amos ’n’ Andy’ resulted in us creating a Hollywood office and an Image Awards show so we can promote positive portrayals of who we are as a people.”
Johnson says the need for positive images of African-Americans has heightened with the barrage of controversial black-face and lynching allegories popping up lately.
“The Image Awards are especially important during a time when racialized images still exist in our society,” Johnson says. “Our brand celebrates excellence in the African-American entertainment industry in spite of and because of these controversies.”
The NAACP has long been the voice of advocacy and refuge in times of racial conflict and its awards show is an extension of that, says Stacy Milner, the founder of the HBCU in L.A. Internship Program. The latter provides immersive, real-world work experience within Hollywood’s entertainment industry for students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“It’s amazing, from its beginning days to now, how the Image Awards have made tremendous strides,” she says. Milner used to work for NBC back when the network aired the kudoscast. “It continues to shine a spotlight on who we are as a people, our accomplishments and our history and legacy.
“It’s just something that needs to be showcased and 50 years is a testament to what this ceremony has been able to do. I’m so glad the members of the NAACP, all those years ago, decided to create this show. If we don’t recognize ourselves, pat each other on the back and lift each other up, who will?”
This year’s honorees certainly beg to answer that question. For instance, Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) will be honored with the NAACP Chairman’s Award, which recognizes individuals who demonstrate exemplary public service and use their platforms to create change.
This is the second time Waters has received the award. The first was 22 years ago. Past Chairman’s Award honorees include Janet Jackson, Barack Obama (before he became president) and Bono.
“The strength of her voice in the political space and her ability as a galvanizing force makes her a beacon that millennials look up to,” Johnson says of Waters. “It’s fascinating to see how she projects her message of clarity and accessibility to our community and moves people to rally behind her.
“She’s Auntie Maxine and they know she’s going to bring it,” he says. “Her strength is something we wanted to honor for our 50th anniversary.”
The NAACP humanizes the perception of African-Americans as few other entities can, says Marquette Folley, the project director and executive developer for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. “The Negro Motorist Green-Book,” which New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green published in 1936 and plays a key role in the Oscar-winning movie “Green Book,” is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“‘The Green-Book’ was an activist tool of affirmation for African-American humanity, entrepreneurship, creativity and the willingness not to be treated as second-class citizens,” Folley says of the manual, which existed until 1966 and informed black tourists where they could stay, play and eat safely in segregated parts of America.
“Despite the odds, our parents and their parents and so on always found a way,” Folley says. “That’s what the Image Awards symbolize. For 50 years, this awards show has served as a reclamation of our power, determination and vision to affirm the rights of all humanity.”
“Green Book” won the best picture Oscar and supporting actor trophy for Mahershala Ali, who plays musician Don Shirley in the film, set in 1962.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” received seven Image Award nominations, including motion picture. The tally more than doubles the number of Oscar nominations Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the James Baldwin novel received; Regina King won the supporting actress Oscar, but the film didn’t get a best picture nom.
There are also lesser-knowns such as R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn. His sixth album “Decade of a Love King” didn’t get any Grammy consideration, but the balladeer has been nominated for the Image Award for male artist — recording.
“I’m elated to know that this year, on the 50th anniversary of the NAACP Image Awards, that myself and my peers are being acknowledged by our people,” says DeVaughn, who has been Grammy-nominated in the past. “This supersedes being acknowledged by any other organization.”
Johnson says organizers had to add categories to this year’s show and the number of submissions grew by 40%. This is a marked improvement from 1990 and 1987, when the NAACP eliminated its film actress category because there were not enough black women in leading roles to nominate.
“This is a huge success and an indicator that the influence of African- Americans is increasing,” Johnson says. “That’s extremely important in this time and political climate.”
There’s also the broader-reaching Entertainer of the Year award. Each year the category includes a wide array of nominees from various art forms. This year’s contenders are no different and include Beyonce and “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler.
“The current picture of Hollywood is one of positive projection and growth,” Johnson says. “You have ‘Black Panther,’ and Shonda Rhimes and ‘Black-ish’ and other success stories in an industry that used to exclude us. That is a testament to not only the advocacy of the NAACP but determined individuals like Rhimes, and Ryan Coogler, who push the envelope on what we see in front of and behind the camera.”