An Open Letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,
Since the announcement and subsequent cultural firestorm that erupted after the 88th Annual Academy Award nominations, I have been engaged in constant thought-provoking conversation with people in and outside of the film industry. As the Executive Director of the Foundation for the Augmentation of African-Americans in Film (FAAAF), creator of the Black Reel Awards, which annually honor Black actors in feature, television and independent film AND the President of the Washington, DC-Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), I have a unique insight into the inner-working of the film industry from several perspectives. I entered the business as a film historian, studying the foundation and formation of not just Black film but the founding fathers of the industry, themselves.
For the first time in five years, the nominations featured no Black actors or performances. While the Academy Awards remain the oldest and most prestigious film award given since its inception in 1927, it is not the only award that recognizes Black actors. While ‘If You Don’t Like It, Make Your Own’ may be a terrible argument, it is responsible for birthing The Black Reel Awards in 2000. Initially created as not just an alternative but as addition to the awards landscape, The Black Reel Awards provides long overdue acknowledgment while annually spotlighting African-American film achievement in feature, television, and independent films.
The Black Reel Awards are voted on by a group of 80 people, comprised of film critics, filmmakers, and music professionals. Over the course of our 16-year history, the Black Reel Awards have nominated over 1,000 filmmakers, actors, technical professionals and performances and handed out close to 300 awards. In addition to serving as an annual record of Black film achievement, it has also given us a birds-eye view of the evolution of Black cinema parallel to mainstream efforts during the 21st Century.
Amid the constant roar and firestorm that has erupted over the past five days on social media, there are several issues that have been overlooked as it relates to this controversy. Out of the Academy’s 24 categories, there are three that stand out and are in question: the Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories. Out of all of the potential Black nominees with an ‘ax to grind,’ Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), Michael B. Jordan (Creed), Will Smith (Concussion) as well as films, Straight Outta Compton, and Creed were all legitimate contenders. While cries of ‘institutional racism” have been valid concerns over the almost nine-decade history of the Academy, there are other factors that are in play that also need to be addressed.
1. Since 2009, when The Dark Knight failed to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination, the Academy decided to reinstitute a policy of nominating ten films in this category for the first time since 1945. However, in 2011, the Academy adjusted the number of nominees in this category to “vary between five and ten.” This year, the Academy only selected EIGHT films for Best Picture, leaving two spots that could have been filled by worthy contenders such as Straight Outta Compton or Creed. For an award that has generated as much interest as the Academy Awards, it may be time to once again institute ten nominees to create a greater sense of diversity, as well as provide more opportunity for additional work to be honored.
2. The screening calendar for film release and distribution has grown disproportionately and too many members of the industry have failed to remain current. There are close to 1,000 films released annually in theaters, here in North America and globally, VOD, and independently each year. The calendar, if we look at it as a pie, would feature light, popcorn fare from January to March, summer blockbusters from April to August, more adult fare from September to mid-October, and awards contenders from late-October to the end of the year. The push for voters to consume a large volume of award’s contenders does a disservice to those who vote in Film Critic groups, as well as those in the industry who create the product. The lack of time to view all potential contenders prevents smaller, more specialized work from being viewed by voting members. As a result, many worthy films are simply overlooked for awards consideration. Many were films that either didn’t appeal to busy and disinterested voters unable to consume in time for them to give a fair and balanced opinion. By spreading out the “contenders” across the calendar and selecting five Best Picture nominees from January to June and five more from July to December, there is more time for all performances to be evaluated without the late-year crunch. An added benefit is that films that debut at year’s end will not take precedent over performances released earlier in the year.
3. Since the inception of the Academy Awards in 1927 to 1999, there was a total of 14 Black Oscar winners in all categories, including honorary winners. The numbers have improved slightly since the turn of the century. Since 2000, there have been an additional 24 wins added bringing the grand total to 38 Oscars given to people of color. Over the past several years, the Academy has invited more minority members to attempt to diversify the voting body, which largely comprised of White males (97 percent) with an average median voting age of 69. If it’s true that we look at films and stories through our prism, does the current voting body see performances by people of color, Black people as viable stories, or is it feasible that only stereotypical extremes gain their attention? One can argue, recent examples include Monster’s Ball (Halle Berry), Training Day (Denzel Washington) and Precious (Mo’Nique) highlight this paradigm. Despite having a Black President, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, show producer, Reginald Hudlin and host, Chris Rock, the 88th Annual Academy Awards will be remembered for the lack of Black participation in the audience, more than the history that has been made behind the scenes.
It is that dynamic that led us to create the Black Reel Awards, currently the only show that honors Black actors and those of the African diaspora, annually, in 26 categories. While we support the work of other organizations with similar objectives, the Black Reel Awards consistently strives to honor African-American cinematic excellence in the spirit that is notable and worthy. While it is noble to receive the industry’s longest standing honor, we should be careful when seeking outside validation from one award while discounting others presented with cultural spirit and pride; such pursuit is ‘Fool’s Gold.’
Yes, the Academy Awards are significant, winning that or any other award doesn’t promise the winner a great career, it just provides additional and better opportunity for quality work. On behalf of the Board of Directors for FAAAF, we are fervently working toward unveiling our show and its rich history to a global audience. This production will spotlight the strength of the rich talent in Hollywood as well as stories and Black images across the globe. By displaying the fullness of that experience, The Black Reel Awards will continue to celebrate our stories, our performers and OUR time!
Tim Gordon, Executive Director
The Foundation for the Augmentation of African-Americans in Film