Is it wrong to honor one’s own?
While the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences fails at being more diverse, entering the second year of #OscarsSoWhite, groups like the African American Film Critics Association seem ever more necessary as a way to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of black filmmakers. They have no qualms about touting their blackness in the face of the academy’s glaring whiteness.
While the academy doesn’t blatantly promote itself as an organization for whites only, it’s hard to see the Oscar as an award for all. According to AAFCA co-founder and President Gil Robertson, the Academy Awards don’t function that differently from their niche counterparts, such as the GLAAD, BET and ALMA Awards. They all give preference to those who are part of their communities.
The Oscars’ “preference” just happens to be white, while they also claim that they’re awards that acknowledge the work of all—a glaring contradiction.
“That’s the big elephant in the room. You call yourself the Academy Awards and you say your awards are based solely on merit without consideration to race or gender, but historically, all the awards are going to white people except for a few exceptions when a black performance was just so elevated that it couldn’t be ignored,” says Robertson, who noted Lupita Nyong’o’s 12 Years a Slave performance as one the academy could not overlook. “If you ignore it, you lose credibility.”
The AAFCA, which hosts its seventh annual awards Feb. 10, functions in the same way. It has honored several white actors, including Angelina Jolie and Heath Ledger. Those actors delivered performances that the AAFCA couldn’t overlook, and despite its name, the AAFCA had to acknowledge their work.
“The most important thing is craft and excelling at that to the highest degree,” says Robertson. “We couldn’t lock ourselves in a box where we’re only recognizing black films. Most film critics’ groups simply judge the films on the merit of whether that project reaches the highest level of excellence.” He acknowledges, however, that having a bit of melanin is an advantage when it comes to his awards. There might be a double standard: If the Academy Awards organization ever confessed that a lack of melanin helped put a nominee on top, the recent outcry would be just a whimper in comparison.
“If you’re a black actor, that gets our attention,” says Robertson. “We notice when our performers are performing.” Unfortunately, it seems that those who vote on Oscar nominations aren’t so attentive. And while some, like Fox News personality Stacey Dash, might call it racist, Robertson explains that that’s exactly why the AAFCA is necessary.
“I don’t think people are conscious of it,” he said about mainstream award shows. “It’s subjective, but all awards are. … It’s so complex, and people may not be conscious of it. That’s why organizations like AAFCA exist.”
The AAFCA Awards, Trumpet Awards, NAACP Image Awards, BET Awards and Black Reel Awards are just a few that focus on performances and contributions made by minorities. After Will Smith’s recent snub for his role in Concussion, his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, suggested that blacks cease the begging for recognition by mainstream award shows and be content with the accolades they receive from their own.
“Maybe it’s time that we recognize that if we love and respect and acknowledge ourselves in the way in which we are asking others to do, that that is the place of true power,” Pinkett Smith said in a video released in January.
The Academy Awards, however, are considered the pinnacle of acting achievements. In some cases—although not always for blacks—the recognition catapults the celebrities’ careers to the next level. That’s not necessarily the case when stars win a BET Award, and Robertson says that’s why such awards don’t carry the same weight and often aren’t appreciated in the same way.
Although he doesn’t agree with everything Pinkett Smith said in her viral video, Robertson agrees that the way blacks receive awards from his organization and those like it needs to change. Those accolades shouldn’t be discounted.
“Black celebrities need to check themselves and review their attitudes and positions. The truth of the matter is, our members are their front line. We cover them when they get started. We cover them as they grow. We cover them when they peak, and we cover them when it’s all over,” Robertson said. “It’s very unsettling when you see black talent not be as accessible as they ought to be. We’re their gatekeepers to be able to deliver their messages about various projects to their community. It’s unsettling that you would have actors who might have been accessible to black media in the beginning turn their backs on us when they go mainstream.”
Mo’nique, who won an Oscar for her role in Precious, offered a similar sentiment. “It’s unfair when we overlook ours and we put all of this on [the Oscar],” she said. “I don’t remember the phone calls I received when I got nominated for the Image Award. I don’t remember the powerhouse black folks calling me up. … Now, when I got the Oscar award, that nomination, I got calls from everybody.”
Despite how they’re received, Robertson stands firm in his belief that award shows for minorities are needed: “They’re necessary because they offer us an opportunity to celebrate ourselves. The Oscars are never going to give us the due that we feel that we deserve.”
Although he did expect a few black actors and films to receive Oscar nominations, Robertson says that he was not too shocked at this year’s lack of diversity.
“I’m not surprised. We’ve been black for too long,” he says, noting the history of Oscar winners. “We weren’t really surprised. There were side eyes, like, ‘These folks aren’t even trying,’ but what are you going to do?”
Robertson’s answer is the AAFCA Awards. They’re doing what they can by recognizing those who otherwise might not be. “We’re going to celebrate them, and that’s it,” he says.