The NAACP Image Awards ceremony celebrates its 53rd year on February 26, commemorating more achievements by people of color than ever before: in addition to its multiple Outstanding Motion Picture, Television, Recording and Literary awards, the organization selected Nikole Hannah-Jones as its second-ever Social Justice Impact Award recipient, and has also added five new categories recognizing podcasts and social media.
After last year’s ceremony, which like many other awards shows was held remotely due to the pandemic, the prospect of packing a live stage with honorees while Anthony Anderson hosts for his eighth time felt like an exciting, overdue balm — not just for the show’s audience, but for Karen Boykin-Towns, Vice Chair of NAACP’s Board of Directors. But the latest and most aggressive strain of the Covid-19 virus led to the sensible decision to not endanger the lives of the people that made some of the most inspiring accomplishments of the last year, and instead to try and capitalize on the discoveries made both during the weeks and months of quarantining as well as in the adjustments implemented during the 2021 Image Awards that seemed to resonate most strongly with the community that they were conceived in order to honor.
“I think like most, we thought that in 2022 we would be back in person at the Dolby but that’s not where we are,” Boykin-Towns tells Variety. “But I’m really, really proud of being able to make a pivot and deliver something that audiences will be proud of and be impacted by.”
Executive producer Reginald Hudlin has become an awards-show veteran over the last two decades, writing, directing and producing segments not only for the Image Awards, for which this year marks his 10th anniversary with the show, but for The BET Honors ceremony, the Primetime Emmys and even the Academy Awards. Despite being in a similar position now in 2022 that he was in 2021, Hudlin indicates that the changes, and choices, made for this year’s ceremony, were approached less from the make-do perspective of last year than an earnest effort to make something truly great. “Instead of making the lesser version of what we normally do, we decided to take this opportunity to reinvent award shows,” he says.
One of the biggest successes of last year’s ceremony was staging segments at locations of great significance to the black community, including the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Morehouse college campus in Atlanta, and the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Hudlin says that it was a no-brainer to seek out more of these landmarks for presentations and performances when it became evident that gathering in one location wouldn’t be possible.
“We get to go to a whole new set of places this year, some of them very internationally known and some of them are local favorites,” Hudlin says. “But the point is when you see all of them, you get to see the black world — which is a world that’s open to everybody. And all kinds of people go to these places, but you don’t see them on television. It’s a simple idea that had a shockingly big impact.”
Admittedly, he says that the foundation of the show always starts with the same elements. “A lot of it really is the production team and the host and the writers sitting around and you start with, can you make each other laugh? What’s the most inappropriate joke? And then you go, there’s a version of that that can actually work on television. So a lot of it’s just catching the moment.” While awards ceremonies frequently capitalize on current events in a more timely and provocative way than scripted programming, Hudlin observes that the Image Awards shoulder a particularly burdensome responsibility as one of the most widely broadcast shows to speak to, and for, the black community. “We always take the monologue to be our chance to do the state of black America and cover everything that’s happening in entertainment and politics, everything that’s going on, because shamefully, we’re one of the few venues that do that,” Hudlin says. “We only do it once a year, I wish there were more people doing that at least once a week.”
Going on two years after the George Floyd protests sparked a national discussion about race, policing and politics, Hudlin says that the creative team for the Image Awards zeroed in on a number of immediately pressing but equally important topics, while trying to harness the urgent energy of that moment into the ceremony’s scripts and programming. “Tragically, there will always be those kinds of social injustices, which fortunately NAACP is always there to stand up for,” he says. “Now, a key agenda item for us is making sure that people come out to vote for the midterms. It’s not sexy, but it’s life or death.”
“I mean, so often black America has been America’s conscience to force us as a nation to live up to our potential — so we continue to play that role.”
Juggling a sense of social responsibility while also joyfully recognizing the cultural contributions of artists, activists and intellectuals is a skill the Image Awards has increasingly refined over its 53-year history, which is why NAACP’s Board of Directors has ramped up and expanded the honors the organization bestows. “We know that being nominated for an image award carries a certain standard of excellence, and we don’t take that for granted,” says Boykin-Towns. And it comes with a level of responsibility. So as the show continues to grow, we want to continue to celebrate people of color, but at the same time make sure that that they reflect the standards that people expect from us.”
With a handful of legacy based-honors given out annually such as the Chairman’s Award, which this year is being given to Samuel L. Jackson, the show also crucially provides an opportunity to celebrate black artists who may not have elsewhere received the kind of career recognition that they deserve. “I think we would all agree he’s owed a couple of Oscars by now, so I’m very happy that we are honoring his work,” says Hudlin. Of course, there’s also the In Memoriam reel, which Boykin-Towns says may end up being the longest in the history of the show. “We’ve just lost so many people in the last year, so that section is something that a lot of time and intention is put to honor those heroes and sheroes, icons and legends that we have lost.”
In this or any other year, Hudlin calls the segment “one of the more solemn responsibilities of the show, but one of the most important,” particularly because as an organization, the NAACP honors achievements in so many different areas. But it’s also because of that wider net that he says that the Image Awards offer an opportunity like almost no other, not only to pay tribute to black excellence of the past, but highlight creative and cultural progress going forward.
“Every year we strive to make it better. When I first started doing the show it was really tough to get people to participate, and now everyone’s fighting to get in,” he says. “When I look at the quality of the product that we’re celebrating, things are just better. So there’s every reason to celebrate, because I see a forward movement in terms of the artistic quality that’s coming from our community.”