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ST. PETERSBURG — Six years ago, producer Will Packer was among the Hollywood luminaries who called out the Academy Awards for a lack of diversity in their Oscar nominations.
His film, NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton, was among those that critics believed was snubbed. Its sole nomination was for best original screenplay.
But this year, Packer — a St. Petersburg native and son of a local civil rights activist — is on the other side of the controversy.
The filmmaker whose billion-dollar production resume also includes Ride Along, Stomp the Yard and the remake of Roots, is producing the 94th Academy Awards ceremony to be held Sunday at 8 p.m.
To shorten the show’s runtime, eight of the less glamorous awards will be presented prior to the live telecast.
It’s a change that has received blowback from Hollywood giants like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Guillermo del Toro.
The film academy’s decision has overshadowed what might have been a more celebrated historic feat in other years.
Packer is leading the first ever all-Black Oscar producing team.
That accomplishment has not been lost on his hometown museum.
The Woodson African American Museum of Florida is holding an Academy Awards watch party at its Legacy Garden, 2240 Ninth Ave. S in St. Petersburg. Doors open at 7 p.m. The event is hosted by Mayor Ken Welch.
“St. Petersburg is proud of Will Packer’s success in the film and entertainment industry, and thrilled that he is making history as part of the first all-Black production team for the Academy Awards,” Welch said in a prepared statement. “He is setting an example for children and young adults anywhere that through hard work and dedication, anything can be achieved.”
Despite his hectic schedule in the days leading up to the Oscars, via email, Packer agreed to answer Tampa Bay Times questions about his historic night:
What is your reaction to The Woodson African American Museum of Florida hosting a watch party in your honor?
Unbelievable! As a young man who grew up in south St. Pete, this is the icing on the cake of the already tremendous honor of producing the Oscars. To have St. Pete’s first Black mayor host an Oscar watch party the year of the first all-Black Oscar producing team, the lead of which is born and raised in the bay area, feels amazingly serendipitous. I only wish I could be there. Lol.
I read that you were asked in prior years to produce the Oscars but turned down the offer. Why did you agree to do it this year?
I finally realized that as busy as I am there would never be a “perfect” time and there is growth in the uncomfortable. I felt like this year there was an opportunity to really make my mark and have my presence be felt on an iconic show.
A few years ago, you spoke out about the Academy Awards’ lack of diversity. Now, you are leading an all-Black production team. Yet, it feels like this moment is being overshadowed by other issues. Should your team be receiving more attention?
I’m someone who always believes “I can show you better than I can tell you.” I’m proud of ours being the first all-Black team but I don’t feel the need to talk about it inordinately. I’d rather show the world what we can do and then after the fact we can talk about how great the result was that this particular team produced. There is no doubt our skill sets and perspectives are allowing us to create a show that will be different than that of our predecessors. Representation, inclusion, diversity, they all matter. The right people are seeing what we’re doing and taking notice. But I’d rather revel in the results after the fact.
Is this year a sign that the diversity issue is improving?
It has definitely improved and having someone like myself at the helm of Hollywood’s biggest night shows that. But make no mistake, as an industry we were so far behind that we still have a long way to go.
Your late father, William Packer Sr., was a civil rights leader in this area. He was the first Black student to graduate from the University of South Florida engineering school and he was later the chairman of the St. Petersburg Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Commission. What did he pass on to you?
One of my dad’s favorite sayings was “Pay Now and Play Later or Play Now and Pay Later. It’s up to you.” I’ve honed my work ethic over the years based on this mantra. And I saw him live his life this way. He put the work in and enjoyed the fruits. I like to think that by grinding as hard as I do, I’m honoring his legacy.
What did your father have to overcome?
Here’s the thing about being the “FIRST,” it sounds good later after you’ve accomplished it. But while you’re going through being the first it can be lonely, stressful and even dangerous. I saw my father take on challenges in life with his head held high and an extraordinary amount of confidence in himself. And then I saw him pay that forward to future generations that he had blazed trails for. That approach is exactly how I try to live my life and execute my career.
If you go
Where: The Woodson African American Museum of Florida’s Legacy Garden, 2240 Ninth Ave. S, St. Petersburg
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Details: Mayor Ken Welch will deliver remarks ahead of the awards at 7:45 p.m. The awards broadcast begins at 8 p.m. on ABC.