If you haven't yet heard of the African-American Film Critics Association, you probably will in the very near future. The AAFCA consists mainly of African-American journalists dedicated to exploring the cinematic arts.
The AAFCA recently announced its top 10 films of 2011. Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, topped the list, followed by Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, and Pariah, directed by Dee Rees and starring Adepero Oduye. The AAFCA Awards will honor iconic actors Richard Roundtree, Hattie Winston and legendary filmmaker George Lucas on Jan. 8.
Founded in 2003, the AAFCA honors excellence in cinema by creating awareness for films with universal appeal to black communities, while ensuring that films about the black experience and those starring or produced, written and directed by people of African descent receive media coverage. By and large the organization is made up of arts and entertainment journalists with a particular interest in film.
Recognizing that there was a void in the market in terms of critics who were exploring issues related to films from and about people of African descent, film critic Gil Robertson IV and other cinephiles came together to create an organization to fill the void. Additionally, the AAFCA provides a "hands-up" opportunity for younger people of African descent to pursue a career in film criticism. Members include Margena A. Christian of Ebony magazine; K.J. Matthews of CNN; Jamal Munnerlyn, West Coast editor for Vibe magazine; and Deirdre Childress, entertainment editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Currently there are 17 members, and the organization is growing. If you think that's a small number, it is by definition (black media critics are grossly underrepresented in mainstream media outlets) and design (AAFCA is interested in members who are serious journalists who demonstrate excellence in film history, aesthetics and criticism). The organization's members represent a geographically diverse cross section of media covering the cinematic arts.
The association actively reviews the quality and standard of black talent, content and media coverage, even offering a "Seal of Approval" for films with a good message and that are of high quality, regardless of genre. The AAFCA casts an eye on all cinema, regardless of the race, nationality or religion of the filmmaker or producer; however, it gives special attention to films by filmmakers of African descent.
We caught up with Robertson, president and co-founder of the African-American Film Critics Association, to find out more about the organization and who it thinks will take filmmaking to the next level.
The Root: Do black film critics have any added responsibility to provide exposure for black film?
Gil Robertson: Absolutely. That is one of the reasons why we were founded. Very often, African-descended filmmakers may lack the resources needed to create awareness about their films. We are in the unique position to offer the type of support and exposure that will hopefully translate into the films generating a bigger audience for their projects.
GR: Absolutely not. As you can look at previous years when we have announced our top 10 award winners, for many of those years there were no black films on the lists at all. Our expectations for black film and black filmmakers are the same that we would have for any type of film. The stories, cinematography and acting should be on par with Scorsese, Fellini or Spike Lee. The only difference is that we're willing as an organization to work with black filmmakers to provide them with the perspective and insight on what good filmmaking is all about.
That is why AAFCA issues a Seal of Approval to some films, distributors and production houses to demonstrate that a group of educated, alert and competent film critics has seen the film and that we approve of the message and quality of the film, such that it is worth consumers spending their hard-earned money to watch the film. Our goal is to give it to you straight in the hopes that the filmmaker will improve where necessary.
TR: What period do you consider the heyday of black film, and what's the status now?
GR: I don't know if there has ever been a heyday. Black film seems like it has always been in a precarious position. If you look at how blacks in popular culture translate in other areas like sports and music, or even that Will Smith is the biggest star in Hollywood, you would think there would be more black films in Hollywood.
You just don't see the same volume of stories in Hollywood, and we don't see the same level of detail and sensitivity given to our stories when they are made into films. Far too often, films about blacks seem like they are thrown together as an afterthought. I don't know what it's going to take for Hollywood to change and offer and support a wider range of stories that are starring or depict people of African descent.
You have Red Tails, a film about the Tuskegee Airmen, that is being told from the perspective of the black characters, which is rare in Hollywood. Often films involving historical events relating to people of the Diaspora are told through a European lens. While this [change in perspective] is finally happening, it is an exception, which is why black independent film is important.
Take Kinyarwanda, which was released by the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement; it's a story told from the Rwandan perspective. Hollywood has to do a better job of telling real stories about people of African descent from their perspectives. This doesn't only pertain to blacks — it pertains to Asians and Latinos as well. Hollywood needs to realize that this world is full of color and varied stories that should be represented on film.
TR: What up-and-coming black filmmakers or actors should we be watching?
GR: There is an Afro-Brit named Steve McQueen, who did a film named Shame, who is one to watch. His films are not necessarily populated by black people or necessarily black stories, but he shows the world as it really exists — blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics — diverse groups of people interacting and living life.
Ava DuVernay has her second film, Middle of Nowhere, which was invited to Sundance in 2012. That's pretty major — for your second independent film to be invited to Sundance. You're talking about a woman who is making films on her own terms, the way that the Warner brothers and Coen brothers started in the business. Black filmmakers like DuVernay, McQueen and Rees are making it happen through blood, sweat and tears, and the AAFCC will be here to make sure that their films receive the coverage and exposure that they deserve.
Nsenga Burton is editor-at-large for The Root.