The NAACP Image Awards: Where Black Artists Matter

Staci Bell - March 8, 2017

It is well known that the Oscars have a problem with spotlighting racially empowering films.

I don’t have to detail that here – all you have to do is look up “#OscarsSoWhite” to find a hefty number of opinion articles about it. Putting that aside, I think now it’s time to focus our attention not on what the Oscars failed to do, but rather on where other awards shows succeed. The NAACP Image Awards, which have celebrated black achievement in entertainment for the last 48 years, succeeded in every place where the Oscars failed.

The NAACP Image Awards occurred on February 11th, but I bet most people missed it, or didn’t even know it existed. The ceremony is not particularly well known or extensively advertised, in stark contrast with the Oscars' self-congratulatory two-hour spectacle. The NAACP Image Awards were designed to honor the black entertainers that give so much to the film and music industry, but rarely get the tangible recognition that they deserve. Their acknowledgement of black success proves that without black artists, we would not have some of our favorite visual and musical experiences.

Anthony Anderson, the beloved star of black-ish, hosted the ceremony. Anderson started off the show by offering a serious, tear-filled reflection on the legacy of former President Barack Obama. Images of former President Obama and his family were shown on the screen, alongside clips of audience members wiping their eyes. I found myself glancing away to keep myself from crying as well. I particularly appreciated Anderson's professionalism. He praised the Obamas and made very few jokes, which differs from his usual comedic presence. Instead of criticizing President Trump and the Republican Party, he chose to focus on Barack Obama's impact on the black community. The Image Awards represent strength, solidarity, and a focus on what can be done in the present, rather than on what might be done in the future. What mattered at that moment were not the blunders that came with the election of our new president, but rather what the black community had achieved in the past year. And black actors and music artists had done so much – something that is easy to forget.

However, the highlight of the Image Awards this year was the ceremony’s innate empowerment of black women. The pressures of the world have bound black women together into an unbreakable sisterhood, providing the Image Awards with the feel of a “family reunion”.

Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis, Janelle Monáe, Tracee Ellis-Ross, Ruth Negga, Lupita Nyong’o, Issa Rae, amongst other amazing black women, laughed, hugged, and grinned as they met up with each other on the red carpet. Each woman was absolutely stunning, comfortable, and joyful. When one of these women won an award, she would use her acceptance speech to personally thank each of the other nominees for their support.

The movies and the television shows that these actresses starred in have been very well-received. Hidden Figures, starring Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, and Octavia Spencer, was one of the most successful films of last year. Unsurprisingly, it won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture. Alongside Moonlight and Fences, Hidden Figures was one of three films nominated for Outstanding Motion Picture at the NAACP Image Awards that was also nominated for an Oscar.

Witnessing an Oscars ceremony in which so many films starred black actors and actresses is a rarity. Last year, the Oscars skipped over the successes of Straight Outta Compton, Creed, and Dope, all of which were nominated for NAACP Image Awards. The year before that, Selma was nominated for an Oscar, but the outstanding and satirical Dear White People was glanced over, unlike at the NAACP Image Awards.

Why nominate so many “black” movies now? It is difficult to say that the Academy nominated Hidden Figures, Fences, and Moonlight simply because they thought they were excellent films. We all know that these movies were great, but do the people that chose these movies think so as well? Or did they only nominate them to prove, to themselves and to their audience, that they are not discriminatory?

I wonder if Hidden Figures would have ever been nominated for an Oscar if the Academy Awards had not been condemned for its lack of inclusivity. Hidden Figures did not experience the resistance that Boyhood and La La Land did. It doesn’t take cinematic risks, nor does it introduce a fresh face to Hollywood. It is a straightforward, fun movie that proves to young black girls that they too can be scientists, mathematicians, or engineers. Shouldn’t that be enough? Yet I still question the motives of the Academy Awards this year. If nominating black films is their way of erasing the past, then even investing the time to watch the Oscars seems pointless.

This year’s Academy Awards were a desperate attempt to atone for the past. With Moonlight winning Best Picture, Viola Davis winning Best Supporting Actress for Fences, and Mahershala Ali winning Best Supporting Actor for Moonlight, I found myself cheering for their successes. But, in the back of my mind, I was reminded of how discriminatory the Oscars has been. The decisions felt dishonest and forced, as if the Academy Awards committee only chose these winners because liberals did not allow them to choose otherwise.

Criticizing the Oscars for doing what we laud the NAACP Image Awards for seems unfair. We push for diversity, but then denounce its sincerity. We call out the Oscars for being weak, trying to smother us with its newfound open-mindedness, and then applaud the NAACP Image Awards for acknowledging black success in entertainment.

Institutional offenses such as discrimination in the Academy Awards are difficult to erase in the minds of black people, especially when their effects still impede black achievement in entertainment. The Academy cannot redeem itself in just one night of tokenism. It must consistently support black entertainers – only then will its inclusivity seem sincere.

Staci Bell

Staci Bell is a junior studying Environmental Science. She loves comic book movies and stand-up comedy. Her favorite movies are Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Inglourious Basterds.