Lead Category in NAACP Image Awards Reflects Spike in Diversity and Artistic Caliber

Lead Category in NAACP Image Awards Reflects Spike in Diversity and Artistic Caliber

To best appreciate the competitiveness and quality of the outstanding motion picture nominees for the 51st NAACP Image Awards, which takes place on Feb. 22, check the numbers.

All five of this year’s nominees — “Dolemite Is My Name” “Just Mercy” “Harriet” “Queen & Slim” and “Us” — scored well on Rotten Tomatoes. To wit, “Dolemite” nabbed a 97% “fresh” rating, “Us” landed at 93% and “Just Mercy” and “Queen and Slim” fielded an 84% and 83%, respectively. “Harriet,” starring Cynthia Erivo as the iconic Underground Railroad liberator, scored lowest with a still-respectable 73% rating.

Compare that to the dearth of choices as recently as seven years ago when “Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds,” which earned a 34% Rotten Tomatoes rating, was a contender in that same category. In other words, the Image Awards and the industry have come a long way.

“We created a nominating committee that’s diverse in terms of national perspectives around the art related to our community,” says Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP. “And it was good to see that there was this level of support for the quality of work that has come out this year.

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“All the films that were nominated were outstanding films, not because they were black films, but because they were well made and told great stories,” Johnson adds. “Having a strong advocacy voice and holding the industry accountable, but also appreciating the spending power of the African American community, has generated opportunities that we have not seen in a very long time, if not in history.”

This breadth of choices represents the signature core thrust of the Image Awards, which celebrates the best in diverse entertainment. This includes Rihanna, who will receive the President’s Award, and U.S. Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, who will be honored with the coveted Chairman’s Award. But this diversity also underscores how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences missed an opportunity. Of the nine best picture nominees for 2020, only one — “Parasite” — has a non-white cast. And as Kevin Maillard, a law professor, author and New York Times contributor put it, such omissions are not coincidental.

“The easiest explanation of why these films did not get Oscar recognition is that they do not fit the ‘mold’ of what attracts award attention,” Maillard says. “So what does? Big-budget, complicated, epic films armed with award campaign budgets. Three-hour films about war, mobs, crime, cars and testosterone. Particularly in this year’s drop of Oscar nominees, the list leans very white male.

“Fine, there is ‘Parasite’ and ‘Little Women,’ but these single titles are vastly outweighed by narratives that represent the interests of 31% of the population,” he adds. “The root of the problem is representation in the Academy.”

Three of the NAACP outstanding motion picture nominees also defy the status quo, making them outliers in Academy voters’ eyes, Maillard argues.

“ ‘Queen & Slim,’ ‘Us’ and ‘Just Mercy’ are not slave movies, which are ‘easier’ for white voters to understand,” he says. “They are not movies about the South or buddy films. They are confrontational and unapologetic narratives that place black stories at the center, completely separate from white interests. Past Oscar nominee and winner ‘Moonlight’ was a great exception. [But] these films show that black lives actually do matter.”

Although AMPAS is the most influential honoring body, it wasn’t the only organization to overlook the dozen or so critically acclaimed films created by and starring white women and people of color, says Monique Jones, founder of the entertainment blog Just Add Color and author of “The Book of Awesome Black Americans.” Other awards shows with whiter and more male-leaning nominations include the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

“Some feel like it’s a reaction against the amount of progress that social movements, such as #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo have made in a short amount of time,” Jones says. “Even though the progress is substantial in terms of how quickly the moviegoing culture’s sensibilities have shifted, it’s still a drop in the bucket to just how much progress needs to be made in the entire industry. Some in the industry apparently feel threatened by it, leading voters to vote for films that appeal to their worldview instead of actually [championing] films that could expand their worldview.”

“Harriet,” a biopic that traces Harriet Tubman’s narrative as an enslaved woman who became an abolitionist and helped others escape, was directed by Kasi Lemmons, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard. It is also the only Image Awards outstanding motion picture nominee to earn any Oscar nods. The Academy nominated the film in two categories: lead actress for Erivo in the title role and original song for “Stand Up.” Erivo, who also sings the moving tune, wrote it along with Joshuah Brian Campbell.

Debra Martin Chase, whose producing credits include “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” is a producer on “Harriet.” Although she says she and the film’s creators, cast and crew would’ve loved more Oscar love, they appreciate the film’s nine Image Award nominations.

“It is so exciting that this year the Image Awards’ outstanding motion picture category is so rich and so competitive,” Martin Chase says. “It speaks to the progress that we’ve made
in Hollywood. We still have a long way to go but there are great movies being made. And Focus Features has been incredibly supportive of ‘Harriet.’”

“All of our Oscar nominations are for Cynthia and she is so deserving,” Martin Chase adds. “As a black filmmaker, it means so much to be honored by the NAACP. We have nine Image Award nominations, the most nominations of any movie.And we hope we win some. I want to win.”

Like Erivo, author and filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry has the unique distinction of being nominated for an Image Award and winning an Oscar this year. A former NFL wide receiver, Cherry wrote the book “Hair Love,” which pulled in an Image Award nod for outstanding literary work — children. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, Cherry and film producer Karen Rupert Toliver turned the book into a seven-minute animated short film of the same name. The film, featuring the voice work of Issa Rae, won the Oscar for best short animated film. This is the same category in which Kobe Bryant won an Oscar for his film “Dear Basketball” two years ago.

“It’s one thing to be recognized by that circle in the Academy. But [the Image Awards] are my people and my peers,” says Cherry. “There is so much talent that I’ve been a fan of all my life. As it was for Kobe, each nomination is a testament that there is life after professional sports. As people of color, we want to see ourselves and this is just the beginning of great
things to come.”

But while the Image Awards’ outstanding motion picture category is incredibly inclusive, it’s not perfect. And there are those in the industry who wish the nomination committee had included other stellar movies with predominantly non-white casts, including “Waves,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and “Clemency.” That said, “Clemency” earned three Image Award nods, including lead actress Alfre Woodard, and “Waves” received one Image nod for supporting actor for Sterling K. Brown.

“We typically nominate five movies so there is a cutoff,” Johnson says. “We have more content now. There were past years when studios didn’t submit. Now, more studios are submitting because there is a maturing of the investment in African American content. It’s an embarrassment
of riches.”

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