In 1958, Esquire published “A Great Day in Harlem,” a photo taken by Art Kane of 57 jazz musicians ranging from Thelonious Monk to Coleman Hawkins gathered together on a New York City stoop. In an homage to that historic picture, on June 5, 2022, Nickelodeon Animation and Paramount Pictures organized “A Great Day in Animation,” which features 54 Black professionals working in animation today. Taken by Randy Shropshire with Jeff Vespa as production lead and obtained exclusively by Variety, the photo is above.
Though Nickelodeon and Paramount put the event together and hosted it on the Paramount backlot, “A Great Day in Animation” includes artists from all across the industry. The idea for the photo came from Marlon West, a visual effects supervisor for Disney whose credits include “The Lion King,” “Encanto” and the upcoming Disney+ series “Iwájú.” For decades, West has been moved by “A Great Day in Harlem,” as well as Jean Bach’s Oscar-nominated film of the same name, which documents how the photo came to be.
“I’ve had a framed copy of that photo in my office or somewhere for 30 years,” West tells Variety. “And I thought it would be cool to do the same thing with Black animators.”
Aided by his friends and colleagues Bruce Smith, Peter Ramsey and Everett Downing Jr., West began putting together a list of animation professionals to include, aiming for legends like Floyd Norman, whose work on 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty” made him Disney’s first-ever Black animator, and his close collaborator Leo D. Sullivan.
“In the original photo, Coleman Hawkins is standing front and center. He was one of the elders of those folks,” West explains. “I just envisioned Floyd Norman standing in Coleman Hawkins’ spot, and all of us radiating out from him, and Leo Sullivan and other grandmasters who have upped the game.”
It was also important to West to invite up-and-comers such as Latoya Raveneau, who recently directed “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder” and Chrystin Garland, a background painter and designer on series like “Solar Opposites.”
“If people look at this photo 10 or 20 years from now, [I hope] they’re like, ‘There’s so-and-so when they were just starting out!” West says.
After scouting around Los Angeles for different locations to take the photo, West was drawn to the New York-style buildings of the Paramount lot. (“And on a personal level, I was sleeping on floors of my friends’ apartments five blocks away from Paramount when I first moved to L.A.,” he adds.) He then reached out to the studio’s animation head Ramsey Naito, who sought the help of Camille Eden, Nickelodeon’s vice president of recruitment, talent development and outreach.
Eden had long been a fan of “A Great Day in Harlem.” “It has been long enough that I can admit this, but when the documentary came out about the photo, I actually skipped work to watch it in the theater,” she tells Variety over email. “When Ramsey Naito called to tell me about the project, I didn’t have to think twice. I immediately called my event manager, Robbie Siron, and let him know about the project. Robbie was on board, and we went for it. From the time Ramsey called, it took about five weeks to pull it all together.”
The day of the photo was emotional for many. For two and a half hours, 54 Black animation professionals (and one director’s child) met for the first time, had long-awaited reunions and shared their stories.
“The first person to show up was Leo Sullivan. He came with his family. He is such a legend, so to see him walking in was big,” Eden recalls. “Little by little, more people showed up, and I remember thinking, ‘This is really happening.’ I wish I could put into words what that felt like to see all this amazing Black talent gathering. Many hadn’t seen each other for years. Many met their idols and heroes in person for the first time.”
“Carole Holliday was there, and for the longest time she was the only Black woman I knew doing animation. I wanted to introduce her to some of these younger sisters, and it was beautiful to be able to do that,” West says. “To see her surrounded by folks who knew of her, or maybe even didn’t know they were standing on her shoulders. I was fighting back my knees knocking, my voice cracking and my eyes welling up.”
Like “A Great Day in Harlem,” “A Great Day in Animation” will stand to remind the industry that there is a wide wealth of Black artists excelling at their craft.
“I think people are going to look at this photo of 60 Black people and go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that was that many,’ — and that’s a fraction of us,” West says. “In most of my career, I’m either the only brother in the room, or one of the few, and that was the experience of everybody there that day. So I think people are going to be surprised. It was almost [enough artists to staff] a studio standing there.”
“I hope that people interested in animation will see this photo and see several generations of people who look like them being successful and paving the way in animation,” Eden adds. “I hope that studios and executives will see this photo and think of all of the films and projects that each person in the photo had a part of and realize the impact and reach of Black talent in our industry.”
And for the people pictured, West hopes that “A Great Day in Animation” will be a worthy commemoration of a once-in-a-lifetime moment and the special nature of what they do.
“We’re in the business of making things out of thin air,” he says. “What we do does not exist [in advance]. We draw it. We build it. We sculpt it. We paint it.”
(Pictured above: Aaron Spurgeon, Abelle Hayford, Ayo Davis, Breana Williams, Brie E Henderson, Bruce W. Smith, Camille Eden, Carole Holliday, Chris Copeland, Chrystin Garland, Constance Allen, Deborah Anderson, Devin Crane, Eric, Ramsey, Everett Downing Jr., Floyd Norman, Frank Abney, Jay Francis, Justin Copeland, Kaela Lash, Kai Akira, Karen Toliver, Kelley Gardner, Kemp Powers, Kenny Thompkins, Kwesi Davis, Latoya Raveneau, Layron DeJarnette, Lennie Graves, Lenord Robinson, Leo D. Sullivan, Leo Sullivan Jr., Lyndon Barrois Jr., Lynne Southerland, Maimuna Venzant, Marcella Brown, Marlon West, Marshall Toomey, Morenike Dosu, Peter Ramsey, Pixote Hunt, Ralph Farquhar, Reginald Hudlin, Robert Tyler, Ron Husband, Ron Myrick, Shabrayia Cleaver, Shari B. Ellis, Shavonne Cherry, Shay Stone, Sidney Clifton, Swinton Scott, Tara Nicole Whitaker, Tyree Dillihay, Umaimah Damakka)