Association of African American Film Critics. at 15: coping with a critical media situation


Along with virtually every other facet of the entertainment industry, the starkly monochromatic makeup of film criticism has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, with a recent USC study revealing that white writers wrote 82% of the reviews for the top 100 grossing films. But while this discussion has only recently entered the broader conversation in any meaningful way, it’s hardly news to those directly affected, and one group in particular has been at the forefront of the issue over of the last decade and a half.

The African American Film Critics Association. was founded 15 years ago by Gil L. Robertson IV and Shawn Edwards, who met on the New York movie circuit, and began discussing ways to advocate for greater critical representation. Since then, the group has grown to around 60 members spread across the United States, as well as the United Kingdom, Jamaica, and South Africa. The organization’s annual year-end awards are as closely followed as any of the other major crit groups, it maintains partnerships with major guilds, has a crit boot camp program in place films for students and, starting this week, presents a month-long program on Turner Classic Movies called “The Black Experience on Film”.

For Edwards, a longtime film critic for Fox 4 News in Kansas City, Mo., the formation of the AAFCA in 2003 coincided with growing frustration with his role in the Kansas City Film Critics Circle.

“As the only African American and the only person of color [in the group], when it came time to discuss the issues and vote, I felt like my voice and perspective was completely drowned out,” he says. “There was no way, as a black person who had a somewhat different perspective on filmmaking, that I could make an impact.”

After some back and forth, Robertson and Edwards officially founded the organization at the St. Regis Hotel in Los Angeles, sketching a mission statement on the back of a napkin. According to Robertson, their goals were threefold:

“It kind of reached a point where we felt it was necessary to collectively address some of our issues and concerns in order to have more impact,” he says. “On the other hand, there was an issue where we were being approached by talent wondering why they weren’t included in junket opportunities, high visibility opportunities where they could promote their involvement in a certain film. , and through that opportunity promote their career. And the third piece, the most important piece, provided a pipeline for the next generation of young African Americans or black people who were looking to enter [arts and entertainment] journalism or film criticism.

Recruiting a handful of what Robertson calls “other literary nomads” from the junket circuit, the AAFCA has put together a top 10 list for the end of the year, topped by “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”. The list has been the subject of ink, but many critics’ organizations give out year-end awards, and from the start, a key AAFCA accolade has been Robertson’s efforts to expand the reach of the organization throughout the year. The organization first partnered with the NAACP Image Awards and contacted companies such as the DGA, PGA and WGA. They struck an AAFCA Seal of Approval designation for films deemed notable and partnered with the Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival. And after growing from an initial list of the top 10 to a full list of awards (last year it handed out 18), the group launched an annual awards ceremony in 2009, with the help of then-journalist Ava DuVernay.

“For us, it’s plain and simple: Black people see all kinds of movies, not just the movies that black people are in.
Gil L. Robertson IV

“I’ve known Gil for over a decade,” says DuVernay. “I was a publicist and used to present his syndicated column, The Robertson Treatment. We worked on many stories together. I remember his support when I took my first steps into becoming a filmmaker. And around the same time I remember he started AAFCA, we were both working on new ventures, stepping out of our comfort zones.

“Ultimately, she was able to get the studio to help the business,” says Robertson. “Warner Bros. became our first studio partner to be able to produce a live event, and that was all thanks to Ava. I was always very clear that I had a background in journalism, and I didn’t know what I was doing. So it was a pivotal year for us, and then it was off to the races.

Even with the awards, however, the AAFCA has faced a problem familiar to many critics of color: the assumption that critics of a particular ethnicity are somehow exclusively interested in films from their own community. While the group has certainly been proactive in recognizing films by African American filmmakers such as ‘The Great Debaters’, ‘Straight Outta Compton’, ‘Selma’ and most recently ‘Get Out’ with top honors, it is also just as likely to lean towards like “The Tree of Life”, “The Social Network” or “The Dark Knight”.

“You don’t have to be black to win an AAFCA award,” Robertson says, “and it was actually a huge wall to climb, because the first year we started giving out awards in the categories of talents, Felicity Huffman won Best Actress. To say there were people in the industry who were unhappy is an understatement. They just didn’t seem to understand what we were doing, but for us, it is crisp and clear: Black people see all kinds of movies, not just the movies that black people are in.”

As every corner of the entertainment industry is slowly forced to come to terms with its inclusion failures, entertainment media has another problem that makes finding solutions even trickier: the dwindling number of review posts. traditional movies.

As Edwards explains, “How do you diversify your ranks? Well, it comes down to a question of jobs, and then the question of jobs comes down to a question of outlets. So the question becomes whether there are enough outlets, and are those outlets able to bring in more people to make their offices more diverse? And unless you really have the money to start your own outlet, it’s going to be tough.

Carla Renata, film critic and AAFCA member, on the set of TCM’s show ‘The Black Experience on Film’.
Courtesy of TCM

“And then the other problem, even if you have the resources to set up your own point of sale, it’s extremely difficult to become credible. How do you get studios to recognize your outlet as legitimate? How do you get studios to recognize your outlet enough to provide access to screenings, talent interviews, or advanced material? It’s an extremely difficult route to take if you’re not already rooted or part of an outlet the studios are already providing access to.

As DuVernay notes, “The conversation has been constant in communities of color. That the mainstream press and industry trades have not considered the issue over the past decades is sadly accepted and expected.

Access was an initial struggle for AAFCA member Carla Renata, who runs her own outlet, The Curvy Film Critic, and co-hosts the Black Tomatoes online review series.

“When you’re new to the scene and people don’t know you, your name, your reputation, your background, they just see you as someone trying to get close to being a celebrity,” she says. “So Gil and the AAFCA have been a big help to me getting to festivals like Sundance, which is huge, and getting access to interviews with filmmakers and stars when the studio or the publicist might have been like, ‘hmm, no, we don’t think so. .’ As an AAFCA member, I was featured in an LA Times article [by Tre’vell Anderson] on color reviews. After this article, I no longer had any access problems. The phone kept ringing, the emails kept coming. And it was a beautiful thing.

Renata also points to another unusual aspect of the AAFCA: its gender balance. With Robertson estimating the membership of the organization at approximately 65% ​​women, the AAFCA is one of the very few non-male-dominated critics groups.

For Edwards, as the organization pursues partnerships and expands outreach programs for potential young critics, creating more openings remains AAFCA’s guiding principle. “We need to open the door and make it easier and provide better access and understanding that they can create platforms where there’s some kind of job creation and there’s a lot more opportunity,” he said. “Where the idea of ​​being a black movie critic isn’t seen as a quirk, but something you can actually do as a profession and nurture your family and take it to the next level.”


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