Oscar Champ Sounds Off on Image Awards

Black Academy Awards Series: NAACP ignores blacks behind the scenes, says sound mixer Russell Williams II.

Russell Williams II (Tom Radcliff/Point of View Photography Studios)
Russell Williams II (Tom Radcliff/Point of View Photography Studios)

As we gear up for the 2013 Academy Awards, airing Feb. 24, The Root is speaking with black Oscar winners and nominees — past and present — about the prestigious honor.

 (The Root) — Seeing Quincy Jones’ name listed as a composer for the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night forever changed Russell Williams II’s world. “I didn’t think anyone with a permanent tan was behind the camera,” he told The Root. The then-15-year-old, who never considered a film career, had an epiphany: He didn’t have to be in front of the camera in order to be a part of the movie business. And it’s good that things happened this way, because Williams — a voting member of the academy — has won two Academy Awards for sound mixing and knows a lot about the industry.

Williams, who has a news and documentary background, first came to Hollywood in 1979. He worked on television shows, but his first big break came with Field of Dreams, which was followed by Glory and then Dances With Wolves. In 1990 and 1991, he won Oscars for best sound for Glory and Dances With Wolves. Williams and his mentor Willie D. Burton (Bird, Dreamgirls) are the only African Americans to be nominated and win Oscars for best sound.   

In 2002, while still hot in Hollywood, Williams abandoned Los Angeles’ sunny weather for his native Washington, D.C., to care for his ailing father and work as Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at his alma mater, American University, where he’s teaching a new crop of future filmmakers and documentarians.

Williams, also a two-time Primetime Emmy winner, took time between classes to discuss with The Root how winning Oscars changed his career, why there aren’t more “positive” black movies and the purpose the Oscars serve for black nominees.  

The Root: What do you think of the sentiment that African Americans don’t need awards shows like the Oscars, since there are options like the NAACP Image Awards?

Russell Williams II: Well, that’s true, if you’re an actor … I wouldn’t get an NAACP Image Award because they don’t have the technical categories. I have gotten awards from African-American groups — don’t get me wrong. But for some reason, someone like myself or Willie Burton or some of these people who are the real pioneers behind the cameras, apparently are not good enough to get an Image Award. That’s not the image the NAACP wants to proffer. And I think that’s precisely the wrong message.

We’ve never had a drought of talented people in front of the camera or behind the mic. But the longevity in this industry is on the business side and on the creative side. Especially now, with all of these kids playing with computers, if you go see a movie like Life of Pi, that will show you just what the future’s going to look like in terms of computer work. Who’s preparing these younger people to look at this as a possible career path and where you have to go to get the training to do that? Being in front of the camera isn’t the only way to be in the business.

TR: You won back-to-back Oscars for Glory and Dances With Wolves, becoming the first African American to win multiple Oscars. What was it like for you the second time around?

RW: I was much calmer the second year. And I was the last person to think I was going to win a second Oscar. Now, everybody who knew me, when they heard that I was nominated again, said, “Well, you’re going to win.” And I said, “Nah, I don’t think that’s going to happen two years in a row.”