This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When the 44th NAACP Image Awards ceremony airs Feb. 1 on NBC, the event will have traveled miles, literally and metaphorically, from its start in a banquet room at the Beverly Hilton. Created in 1967 to recognize exceptional performances of people of color in the arts, the awards also were meant to point out the paucity of blacks in movies and television -- as well as at the Academy Awards and Emmys.
"Black entertainers were not getting their due on regular awards shows," says Julian Bond, NAACP chairman emeritus and a civil rights activist. "We had to create our own."
With a primetime slot and a robust lineup of crossover African-American nominees and presenters, including host Steve Harvey, Samuel L. Jackson, Jamie Foxx, Queen Latifah and Wanda Sykes, this year's show seemingly proves that the awards' mission has been accomplished. "Things are better," Bond says, "but they're not perfect."
Reginald Hudlin, former president of BET and a producer of this year's show (and of nominee Django Unchained), agrees: "When you go from no presence to some presence, that is improvement, and we have to acknowledge that. But to speak to the full range of talent that's out there -- no, it does not."
The NAACP's role in challenging racial stereotypes dates to 1915 and its protest of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, a landmark but controversial film that depicted black men as sexual predators and the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. As effective as that campaign and subsequent ones were, reruns of The Amos & Andy Show, which NAACP protests helped drive from CBS in the 1950s, still were broadcast as late as 1966. The next year, the Image Awards were launched.
Today, the fact that Django Unchained -- with its unfettered use of the N-word -- is nominated in multiple categories speaks to the evolving diversity of the Image Awards. "The artistry we're celebrating isn't necessarily about being good PR for black people," says Hudlin. "We're here to celebrate the arts, and the arts can be challenging."