The NAACP Image Awards have been celebrating Black art for years. Hollywood is just catching up

Six years ago, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag shone a light on the lack of recognition and opportunities for artists of color in the film industry. This year, the Oscars had a record number of performers of color nominated in the four acting categories (nine out of 20 nominees).

But even if performers of color continue to see gains in representation among the other awards shows, Kyle Bowser, senior vice president of the NAACP Hollywood bureau, says there will never be a substitute for Black art and artists being celebrated by their own community.

“I think it’s always going to be important for the African American community to turn inward and pay tribute to the achievements that we make in the arts,” Bowser said. “Other awards shows becoming more inclusive and starting to recognize our contributions is going to be a wonderful thing as well, but I don’t know that it’s going to put us out of business. There’s always going to be a need for us to celebrate our own and that’s really what the Image Awards is about.”

Following a year punctuated by a pandemic and worldwide calls for racial equity, the televised portion of this year’s NAACP Image Awards, airing on CBS, BET and several other CBSViacom cable networks Saturday at 8 p.m., will focus on themes of social justice and unity through a hybrid of live and pre-recorded content.

“In response to the events of 2020, the NAACP has decided to reinforce what has been our historical focus on social justice, civil rights, diversity, equality and inclusion,” said Bowser. “You will see traces of that in this year’s Image Awards, and it’s a tradition that we plan to continue in years to come.”

“It’s been a year like none other,” said NAACP Vice Chair Karen Boykin-Towns. “Quite frankly, it was about trying to bring forth a show that continued to reflect the Black experience, but also gives voice to the experience that we’ve all lived through for the past year. So one of the things you’ll see is some of the categories being announced from some of our most iconic landmarks around the country — from New York, Atlanta, D.C. [and] L.A. — and so that is a way to sort of bring us together.”

This year’s awards proceedings kicked off Monday with a virtual experience that included a virtual red carpet, a web series, panel talks and a nontelevised awards ceremony. The events will conclude with an after party Saturday broadcast live on BET, a robust roster of programming in spite of the technical setbacks created by the pandemic.

“As producers of the program, it has been a challenge for us being able to work the logistic within a COVID environment,” said Bowser. “We of course watched other [awards] shows, and we saw some elements that worked really well and some that weren’t as effective and kind of took our own path. But by the time the awards [ceremonies] started to air, we had pretty much already decided the direction we would take, and I think we nailed it.”

The show will feature seven competitive categories and pre-taped performances from Jazmine Sullivan and Maxwell (the awards presentations themselves have been pre-recorded, though winners’ reactions will be captured live from their homes).

Special honorees include LeBron James, who will take home the President’s Award, and Eddie Murphy, who will be honored with a Hall of Fame trophy.

From left, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, Chadwick Boseman as Levee and Colman Domingo as Cutler in a scene from Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

(David Lee/Netflix)

This year’s nominees for best motion picture are “Bad Boys For Life,” “Da 5 Bloods,” “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “One Night In Miami…,” while films recognized in other categories include “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” “Sylvie’s Love,” “The Old Guard,” “Soul,” “The Banker” and the documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble.” (The Image Awards’ eligibility period spanned the calendar year 2020, which means the February-released best picture Oscar nominee “Judas and the Black Messiah” won’t be eligible until next year.)

“Really amazing work was released during challenging circumstances this year,” said Boykin-Towns. “There’s no denying the quality of the work, so [we’re] really looking forward to seeing who the winners are.

“Last year was a tremendously tough year, and I think that, particularly for our community which has been disproportionately impacted, to be able to have an evening where we are able to see joy and excellence and realize that we’re still here [is uplifting],” she added. “With Black Twitter being what it is and being able to commune around our social media platforms to really celebrate and cheer on those who are being recognized is really important and something that we really need.”

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