African American Film Critics celebrate great movies shunned by the Oscars
Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Da’Vine Joy Randolph are among the winners
HOLLYWOOD — They say to go where you’re appreciated.
On Wednesday night, that place was the annual awards ceremony of the African American Film Critics Association.
Hundreds gathered at the Taglyan Multicultural Complex here as the organization — of which I am a voting member — handed out awards in 13 categories, including best film, director, actor and actress.
“I can guarantee some black people are gonna win awards tonight. It’s a 90 percent chance,” joked the night’s host, Lil Rel Howry. “[But] AAFCA is very inclusive. They’re not only going to give black people awards.”
This awards season, many are questioning the lack of recognition of some really amazing work by women and filmmakers of color, especially in the nominations for the Academy Awards. So this evening with the AAFCA felt like a corrective.
“I am extremely thankful for this award because people will say so much about the other awards, but it feels special when it comes from your own people. Black people are tough! Black folks give you an award .. and it’s always someone like ‘My cousin do the same thang …’ Am I right? Black people [are] competitive!” Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx said while accepting his award for best supporting actor for his work in Just Mercy, his crack breaking up the entire audience. “And you know what’s crazy? They can. You can’t go too far and not see someone who looks like us and not possess a lot of talent.”
The winners were announced in mid-December, so the evening was for celebration, not suspense. Jordan Peele’s horror film “Us” was named the Best Film of 2019. It was the tenth highest box office grossing film of the year with $255 million worldwide. Other AAFCA winners from that film included Lupita Nyong’o (who many are upset didn’t earn an Oscar nomination for her dual role) for Best Actress and Peele for Best Director.
The Best Actor winner was Eddie Murphy — who also was surprisingly shut out from an Academy nomination this year — for his role in Dolemite Is My Name. Da’vine Joy Randolph earned a win for Best Supporting Actress in the same film.
“My father who raised me, they put him in jail for $25 of illegal substances for seven years. What they don’t understand is that my father taught me how to play football, taught me how to play basketball … he taught me how to play tennis. I said why am I doing what white people do? He said ‘I don’t want you to be limited.’”— Jamie Foxx
“You are my aunties, my neighbors … everyone who helped me and took me to rehearsal and came to my dance recitals and I see all of you,” Randolph said. “I’m so grateful to be seen, to be heard, to be acknowledged.”
The night felt like a family reunion, as actors, producers and studio executives hugged and celebrated one another with laughter and at times somber moments.
This is the kind of event where an artist like Foxx can give a speech that he’d never be able to give in another space.
“The reason that this was so special to me is because it was personal,” said Foxx, who won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Just Mercy, a film that follows a young lawyer ( Micheal B. Jordan) who gets wrongly accused men off death row. “My father who raised me, they put him in jail for $25 of illegal substances for seven years. What they don’t understand is that my father taught me how to play football, taught me how to play basketball … he taught me how to play tennis. I said why am I doing what white people do? He said ‘I don’t want you to be limited.’ But when they put him in jail … and the judge that presided over his case … they put him in jail right next to some of the kids he taught.
“I told him I don’t like going to jail .. so I can’t come visit you because I see you as a king. I wrote him one letter. And when he did get out, he’s lived with me now for 20 years. On top of that, I got a chance to take him to the US Open and he got a chance to watch Venus and Serena play and he sat there with tears down his cheek. He got to see this movie and he was moved by it.”
Other winners reflected the films that we expect to see grace the Oscars stage, like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, which picked up two wins for Best Foreign Film and Best Screenplay. In his acceptance, he talked largely through a translator as he told the audience that he used to put on illegal film festivals in which he would put Korean subtitles on films. Two of the films he gave such treatment to? Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and Jungle Fever he told the crowd, which cheered and laughed at his revelation.
“I didn’t know there were so many curse words! I learned so much from Spike Lee!”
The membership also names the 10 best films of the year — and half of them were directed by women of color. This comes in a season when both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association were justly criticized for shutting out women directors, in spite of what should have been an easy year to bestow honors.
They have to do better.
In the interim, there are bodies like AAFCA to point the way.
That the AAFCA awards presentation came the night before the annual Sundance Film Festival kicks off didn’t feel like an accident. Sundance — which takes place in Park City, Utah — is our first chance to see some of the films that likely will be occupying space during next year’s award season.
In Park City last year, new filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu debuted the excellent Clemency, a film that not only delivered a haunting portrayal from Alfre Woodard, but went on to earn the Grand Jury Prize, the top award out of the fest. And that was only the beginning, as the film collected many awards over the course of 2019. But it was left out at the Golden Globes and the Oscars. Those bodies need to continue to diversify and continue to figure out ways to be more inclusive so that groups like the AAFCA don’t have to be the only ones recognizing such stellar talent.
The AAFCA doesn’t just honor black filmmakers. It’s a body of black film critics who certainly have an eye toward gender and racial diversity. But as you can see from the films that took home honors on Wednesday night — Us, Dolemite Is My Name, Just Mercy, Clemency, The Irishman, Queen & Slim, Waves, Parasite and Atlantics (a tie), The Farewell and Harriet — the films run across the spectrum. Other winners from last night’s event included Abominable for Best Animated Film, The Black Godfather for Best Documentary, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco for Best Independent Film. Queen & Slim captured the Impact Award.
This broadness of vision is how all the awards programs should look. But sadly, we aren’t there yet.
These next few days, we’ll be seeing news coming out of Park City. The work we’ll be consuming was submitted by the most diverse group of filmmakers the festival has seen in its history. Important to note: of the 16 films in Dramatic Competition, seven feature stories are about black characters. Listen for titles like The 40-Year-Old Version, Charm City Kings, Farewell Amor, Miss Juneteenth, Nine Days, Sylvie’s Love and Zola — they could well be among the hottest films to come out of this year’s fest.
They could also be in the conversation for the 2021 award season. If everyone else pays attention.
We better. Because we’ll all be better for it.