Will Smith was the surprise guest that set the room abuzz Wednesday night at the 14th annual African American Film Critics Assn. Awards at the Beverly Wilshire hotel.
But Smith had tough competition in the emotional-speech department from fellow honorees that included Danielle Deadwyler, Viola Davis, Angela Bassett and Gina Prince-Bythewood.
Deadwyler, who won lead actress honors for her tour de force role in “Till,” drew the crowd’s the attention to the world-changing impact of Mamie Till-Mobley, whose provocative decision to show pictures of her son’s brutalized corpse helped ignite the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s.
Like other speakers, Deadwyler drew a direct comparison to the conditions that existed more than a half-century ago to the present day, when politicians are pursuing racist legislation designed to restrict the teaching of American history in schools as it relates to the Black experience over the past 400 years.
“The act of looking, the act of witnessing is present a dire choice,” Deadwyler said, citing the rise of “forces that seek to exclude our work.” But as artists, “we pursue that which has been prohibited. We read the banned books, we watch the dire films at the encouragement of the caring critic,” she said in a nod to AAFCA members. “We share them still.”
On a lighter note, Ryan Coogler, the mastermind behind the “Black Panther” movies, told Variety on the red carpet that he is a fan of Ariana DeBose’s viral BAFTA rap last month, in which she hailed “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” star Bassett as a true queen who “did the thing.”
“I thought it was really theatrical. I couldn’t believe the shape she was in to do all that, to do all the lines. It just reminded me of the high-wire act that is theater,” Coogler told Variety at the red carpet preceding the AAFCA Awards on Wednesday. “I was always thinking ‘man, who’s her trainer?’ You know what I’m saying? I thought it was great.”
Oscar-winning “Black Panther” production designer Hannah Beachler, who received AAFCA’s Building Change Award, could not understand the hate for the rap that featured the “Black Panther” actor and other female BAFTA nominees including Viola Davis, Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis.
“It was brilliant. And I agree with Jamie Lee Curtis: everybody needs to back the fuck up,” Beachler said. “I absolutely enjoyed it. I was back there, giving it a snap.”
Bassett continued to do “the thing,” as she accepted the AAFCA award for best supporting actress. “Every role that I have taken on has been to break through those perceptions of us as Black women, to show our humanity, to tell the diversity of our stories and to share the complexities of what it means to be Black and woman,” Bassett said.
The “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” star shouted out the woman who inspired her, including Rosalind Cash, Ruby Dee and Diahann Carroll. “I hope that the work I’ve done and continue to do in my career will one day be the bright light at the end of a long tunnel for someone who needs the confidence and comfort in knowing that by remaining true to your purpose, you’re showing the world who you are, rather the world deciding for you,” Bassett said.
Jalyn Hall, the 16-year-old recipient of the Emerging Talent Award, has made his mark with roles last year in films “Till” and “Bruiser.” Hall told Variety how much he admires “Brusier” co-star Trevante Rhodes, who starred in the Academy Award-winning film “Moonlight” (2016).
“There’s a scene in the movie where he’s teaching Darius how to fight….He actually knocked me on the head a little bit, and he was like ‘hit harder,’ because I didn’t want to hit him like actually,” Hall said. When Hall did hit hard, “That’s taken they ended up using. We never forgot that. We laugh about it,” he said.
Davis helped close out the night accepting the best picture award for “The Woman King,” after Prince-Bythewood accepted the directing honor for her work on the film.
“Life is a beautiful struggle. We are perfectly imperfect,” Davis said. “I understand that every story that’s told with Black people in it, we all want to be strong, we all want to create beautiful images, but I think the bravest thing that we can do is show the images that are also not so pretty, because in showing those images, we are saying that we are a part of the human family.”
Additional honorees included Antoine Fuqua and Will Smith with the Beacon Award, producer Nate Moore with the Ashley Boone Award, composer Michael Abels with the Innovator Award and the film “Till” with the Impact Award. Smith’s award acceptance marked his first since he shocked a worldwide audience at the 2022 Academy Awards ceremony by slapping Chris Rock on stage.
The AAFCA Awards recognize cinema that highlights the Black experience or is created by people from the African Diaspora. Check out AAFCA’s website for the full list of winners.
(Pictured: Danielle Deadwyler)