AAFCA Celebrates 20 Years of Amplifying Black Voices in Film and TV
In 2003 Queen Latifah was the first female hip-hop artist nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actress for her role in “Chicago.” Although she received a nod from the Academy, Black representation in the awards race was limited that year. The same year, the (AAFCA) African American Film Critics Assn. emerged. Co-founded by Gil L. Robertson, Daryle Lockhart, Kathy Williamson, Kevin “Chill” Heard and Shawn Edwards, the organization’s purpose was clear: to amplify Black voices in film criticism and arts entertainment journalism from across the African Diaspora.
Today, the AAFCA actively reviews and spotlights cinema at large, with a particular emphasis on film and TV highlighting the Black experience. The association’s members are also engaged in AAFCA’s advocacy work, which includes programming for students interested in film criticism and journalism and general community outreach.
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“We started AAFCA to address a need that existed at the time, and sadly still does regarding representation in the media of journalists of color, specifically Black Journalists,” says Robertson, President of the AAFCA.
“We wanted to provide support to up-and-coming journalists, as well as active ones, as they were building their careers,” he continues. “We thought, as a collective, we would be able to address those needs within our ranks and amongst the next generation of journalists looking to create a career for themselves.”
But AAFCA was likewise created to uplift and support the work of Black artists in Hollywood. In that vein, on March 1, the AAFCA will hold the 14th edition of its awards ceremony, feting the achievements of Black artists across the filmmaking arena, many of which do not get their due recognition come Oscar time. The event will take place at the Beverly Wilshire, a Four Seasons Hotel, and will honor myriad high-profile directors, actors, and films that while, shut out by the Academy, made a groundbreaking impact in American cinema. Among those honored are Danielle Deadwyler, awarded with a best actress trophy for her lead turn in “Till,” and Gina Prince-Bythewood, who will receive the best director award for her work helming “The Woman King,” which is also being honored as best film. Famed American Civil Rights activist-cum-journalist Myrlie Evers-Williams, who for three decades fought for justice in the 1963 murder of her husband Medgar Evers, will present Deadwyler with her award.
Other winners include Brian Tyree Henry for best supporting actor (“Causeway”), Angela Bassett, best supporting actress (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”) and “Nanny,” winner of the award for best independent film.
“The AAFCA Awards offer validation to filmmakers and other plans involved in those projects,” says Roberston. “It’s one of the reasons why we started AAFCA, because of the lack of acknowledgment artists were receiving from the industry. I would often get approached by filmmakers and writers, and producers who felt that they were being ignored or shortchanged with given access to the media. We wanted to understand them and know their stories and share their stories with other people.”
“I think that the role we play is indispensable,” Robertson continues. “I often say, during the AAFCA Awards, particularly in our community, we relate and offer a different channel of expression of exposure for this talent because we understand them. We very often will deal with them at the beginning of their careers, through all of the ups and downs that they encounter. And, sadly, in many cases, we’ve been around even to write their obituaries. It’s a relationship that is vast and multi-layered.”
Even with all the other Black-led award shows, like NAACP Image Awards and BET Awards, the AAFCA Awards manage to cut through the noise and competition. Roberson, a noteworthy journalist in his own right, believes the uniqueness of the AAFCA Awards stems from profoundly understanding the plight and struggle of the artist. Approaching critique with integrity and with the artist top of their mind helps solidify their credibility as well.
“I think we hold an important place in the film industry because when you look at our list of awardees, you understand that it was judged by a body that takes the craft seriously,” he says. “Over the last 20 years, how we operate has earned us a certain level of respect amongst our peers across the board. We conduct ourselves with a level of integrity of the highest standard, and that people understand that, that all we’re seeking to do is do our jobs and provide the public with a better understanding of our aesthetic in cinema.”
Deadwyler notes that the AAFCA is significant to the film community, “because it is critical to have a lens that understands the cultural nuisances and dynamism of our work, of the African American visual rhythms and dissonance of our offerings. We are essential to the American experiment and therefore indelible to all of its art forms, especially cinema. This honor means that Mamie’s vision is strengthened and our community’s intelligence, spiritual and otherwise, is tapping in. It means that I am encouraged to continue to work diligently and intentionally for our stories.”
Prince-Bythewood, who has publicly spoken out against the Oscar-voting body for shutting out her critically-acclaimed film “The Woman King,” praises the AAFCA’s impact in amplifying and elevating work that far too many other groups in Hollywood ignore or dismiss.
“The day that [the AAFCA] announced we won, we were all so excited,” says Prince-Bythewood. “To have our community say that this was the year’s best picture meant the world. We make films for an audience, but I know many of us, in terms of Black filmmakers, make films to reflect us.”
“We’re putting images in the world that need to be seen,” she continues. “For our own to celebrate and champion, the work means everything. And indeed, in terms of directing, that also meant a tremendous amount. It’s people seeing and recognizing the work.”
The fact that these awards are voted on by professional journalists is another aspect of the AAFCA event that set it apart from other Black kudosfests.
“How we [journalists and critics] view movies are a lot different than, you know, the body that dominates and votes for the Image Award,” says Roberston. “You’re dealing with people who have an understanding and appreciation of cinema. So the outcome of our votes is much different than any other Black organization. We also operate year-round.”
Regarding AAFCA’s future, Roberson hopes it’ll be around for the next 20 years, expanding its footprint to different storytelling mediums.
“In 20 years, we will have a footprint in television, highlighting the Black experience,” he says. “I’d also like to see us doing some things in the publishing realm. The focus is to expand our brand. It would be great 20 years from now if AAFCA isn’t just a name you recognize only in Hollywood–but a global household name.”
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