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The NAACP in Hollywood

Creating Pathways to Inclusion

History of the NAACP Image Awards

From its inception, the NAACP has remained at the forefront of the struggle to ensure equal opportunity and fair representation in the entertainment industry. As early as 1915, the NAACP vehemently opposed distribution of DW Griffith’s grotesquely racialized film, Birth of a Nation.  The Association also successfully lobbied for the cancellation of the Amos ‘N’ Andy TV series in the early 1950’s.  In this tradition, the Beverly Hills/Hollywood Branch of the NAACP was founded in 1962 and heralded as the first branch of the NAACP to specifically address racism experienced by African Americans in the entertainment industry.

Famed entertainer, Sammy Davis, Jr. loaned his Beverly Hills home, to help establish the Branch, which in turn honored Davis for his financial support and tireless work to obtain benefit African-American entertainers in Hollywood.

Five years later, Branch President Don Lanclos and a committee of entertainment professionals conceptualized an awards show that would celebrate the achievements of African-American artists and professionals who were largely overlooked by mainstream Hollywood. The show would also honor people who work to change African-American images in Hollywood.

Legendary stuntwoman, Toni Vaz and fellow Branch member Maggie Hathaway suggested naming the show The Image Awards, and on February 4, 1967, 200 guests arrived at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to honor Sidney Poitier and other nominees in the very first program.

Now spanning 76 categories, the NAACP Image Awards celebrates outstanding achievements in the arts, including film, television, digital media, music, and literature.  The prestigious award franchise also honors individuals and groups that promote social justice. Special honorary awards, including the Chairman’s Award, the President’s Award, the Vanguard Award, the Jackie Robinson Sports Award, and the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame extol exceptional individuals and organizations for distinguished public service.

Prior Hall of Fame inductees include groundbreaking filmmaker-photographer Gordon Parks (1984) and renowned filmmaker Steven Spielberg, honored with the Vanguard Award during the 31st ceremony in 2000.  At the 36th NAACP Image Awards in 2005, trailblazing talk show host, actress and OWN network founder Oprah Winfrey was honored, and beloved civil rights icon and former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond presented then Senator Barack Obama, with the Chairman’s Award.  Esteemed actress and activist Kerry Washington was presented with the President’s Award during the 44th ceremony in 2013, and formerU.S. Attorney General Eric Holder received the Chairman’s Award in 2015.

Powerful purveyors of media control the transmission of imagery and perspectives that inform attitudes and perceptions throughout the world.  Much of that outlook is amplified through micro-linking social media platforms, which passively perpetuate bias and affirm global imbalance of inequity.  The NAACP Image Awards provides a refreshing and necessary alternate reality, by acknowledging the full dimensions of creative expression and its relevance within our social construct.

NAACP Image Awards Broadcast

In 1986, former President of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood Branch, Willis Edwards, persuaded then NBC President Brandon Tartikoff, to broadcast the 19th NAACP Image Awards, to a national television audience.  was held at The Wiltern in Los Angeles on December 14, 1986.  The inaugural Image Awards broadcast aired in a late-night slot on NBC, but in subsequent years, audiences were able to view the show in primetime on NBC and FOX.

From 2014 – 2018, the NAACP partnered with TV One to air the Image Awards, marking a five-year collaboration with the Black-owned cable network. This multi-layered relationship helped to expand the visibility of the NAACP and bring attention to its key message of promoting and protecting the political, educational, social, and economic equality of all citizens in this country.

For the second straight year, the 52nd NAACP Image Awards will broadcast live on BET Networks on Saturday, March 27, 2021.  Viacom, the parent company for the network has added its flagship outlet, CBS, and other affiliated networks to simulcast this year’s program.

The NAACP’s Roots in Hollywood

Since D. W. Griffith’s brazenly racist feature film in 1915, the NAACP has consistently addressed issues of absence and misrepresentation in entertainment and media. Based on the novel, The Clansman, the Griffith’s film glorified the Ku Klux Klan and portrayed Blacks as menaces. “The freed man was represented either as an ignorant fool, a vicious rapist, a venal or unscrupulous politician, or a faithful idiot,” civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois said of Birth of a Nation. Many attributed a resurgence of lynchings and deadly race riots to viewings of the film, which a few cities banned at the behest of the NAACP.

While Birth of a Nation remains one of the most damaging movies ever made, filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux, Gordon Parks, Spike Lee, to Gina Prince-Bythewood, Ava DuVernay, and Ryan Coogler have contributed authentic and redemptive depictions of the beauty and depths of the diasporic community.

The emergence of digital distribution and convergence has introduced an infinite cache of content, available across a wide spectrum of platforms.  Much of that inventory continues to concern the NAACP, particularly that which upholds the tradition of derogatory African Americans characterizations.

At its annual convention in July 1951, the NAACP passed a resolution critical of the newly launched television series, Amos ‘N’ Andy and other shows relying on blatant negative stereotypes. The resolution maintained that such programs “depicted black people in a stereotypical and derogatory manner, and the practice of manufacturers, distributors, retailers, persons, or firms sponsoring or promoting this show, or other shows of this type are condemned.”

Issues of minority representation in the film industry continued throughout the Civil Rights era, as well as calls for equitable employment opportunities. Despite the monumental movement in the fight for equal education, voting rights, fair housing, and women’s rights, the entertainment industry remained insular and intransigent in its exploitive business practices.

The NAACP Hollywood Bureau

In 1999, a seminal moment in Hollywood history was dubbed by some as the great “whiteout.”  When the television networks unveiled their 1999-2000 Fall season lineup of 26 new shows, none of those shows featured actors of color in starring or leading roles.  The NAACP initiated a high-profile campaign to address the absence of minority representation on TV, as well as the lack of employment opportunities for people of color behind the scenes.

As a result, the networks signed a landmark Memorandum of Understanding with the NAACP and its Coalition partners that same year. The purpose of the Coalition was to advance the cause of diversity in the entertainment industry and create milestones by which to measure future progress. This historic agreement focused on implementing initiatives across all areas of network operations. Members of the Coalition included the NAACP, Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, National Latino Media Coalition and American Indians in Film and Television.

Soon after the signing of the agreement, then NAACP President Kweisi Mfume was inspired to initiate a Hollywood-based operation to better support and pursue the standing diversity initiative. Thus, the NAACP Hollywood Bureau was launched.  Established in 2002, the Bureau is charged with holding the entertainment industry accountable for advancing diversity on both sides of the lens. The office strives to forge meaningful relationships with both the talent community and the media operators that capitalize their art.

The NAACP Hollywood Bureau serves as an effective extension of NAACP’s proud tradition of social advocacy.  By impacting the process of content creation and exploitation, the Bureau helps to shape global hearts and minds in ways that inure toward understanding and unity.

The Bureau frequently meets with movie studios, TV networks, artisan guilds, skilled-labor unions, and others in pursuit of a more inclusive industry and reflective content.  While much progress has been made, there is still much to do. NAACP Image Awards recipient Kerry Washington communicated this sentiment beautifully as she accepted her President’s Award honor at the 45th gala in 2014.

“Just as we must ensure that ‘We, the people’ includes all Americans regardless of race, class, gender and sexual orientation,” Washington shared, “we must also work to ensure that the stories we tell, the movies we make, the television we produce, the theatre we stage, the novels we publish are inclusive in all those same ways.”