The History of the NAACP Image Awards

Presented annually, the NAACP Image Awards is the nation’s premier event celebrating the outstanding achievements and performances of people of color in the arts as well as those individuals or groups who promote social justice.

The NAACP Image Awards is an exciting, star-studded salute to the best in entertainment. Honorees, presenters and performers have included many of the major celebrities in America as well as international political figures and dignitaries. There are 54 competitive categories in the fields of motion picture, television, recording and literature. There are also several honorary awards including the Chairman’s Award, The President’s Award, The Vanguard Award, and The Image Awards Hall of Fame.

The NAACP Image Awards originally aired late night for eight years in the “Saturday Night Live” time slot on the NBC Network. Since 1996, the NAACP Image Awards has been shown in primetime on the FOX television network, where they have become a major programming event.

To understand the importance of the NAACP Image Awards, it has to be placed in a social and historical context. Ideas and images create the belief systems that control our individual and societal actions. When it comes to forming ideas, reinforcing stereotypes, establishing norms and shaping our thinking nothing affects us more than the images and concepts delivered into our lives on a daily basis by television, motion picture, recordings and literature. Accordingly, there is ample cause for concern about what does or does not happen in these mediums when there is little or no diversity in either opportunities or the decision making process.

The NAACP has been involved in the continuing struggle for greater participation by African Americans in the entertainment industry and portrayal of Black people on the screen since 1915, when the organization launched a nationwide protest against the showing of the movie “Birth of a Nation” by D. W. Griffith. The film, set in the period immediately after the Civil War, depicted Black people as savages and the reconstruction era in our nation as a period of corruption. It remains today one of the most controversial films ever made.

Shortly after the NAACP’s crusade against “Birth of a Nation,” a group of independent Black filmmakers appeared on the scene: Emmett, J. Scott, George and Noble Johnson, and the legendary Oscar Micheaux defied the stereotypes and offered movies with Black actors in stark contrast to the images otherwise available. Films produced by these pioneers were tributes to Black endurance and ambition. These movies, referred to as “race films,” portrayed Black people as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and lovers. Plagued by financial and distribution problems, these films virtually vanished by the end of the 1940′s.

When the next professed great American cinematic masterpiece that featured African Americans, “Gone with the Wind,” was released in 1939, African Americans were less strident in their criticism, but less than happy with the film’s portrayal of them.

By and large they supported and applauded Hattie McDaniel who was awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1939 for her role in “Gone with the Wind,” becoming the first Black performer to win an Academy Award.

Before the end of the decade, television would be invented and introduced to the American public. With television, as was the case with motion pictures, the question of characterizations and opportunities for qualified Black men and women continued to be a problem.

At its annual convention in July 1951, the NAACP passed a resolution critical of the new television series “Amos ‘N’ Andy” and other programs stressing negative stereotypes. According to the resolution, shows like “Amos ‘N’ Andy” depicted Black people in a stereotypical and derogatory manner, and the practice of manufacturers, distributors, retailers, persons, or firms sponsoring or promoting this show, the Beulah show, or other shows of this type are condemned.”

Again, in 1963 and 1964, the NAACP adopted resolutions to mount a nationwide campaign to improve opportunities for “Negro” performers in motion pictures and television. NAACP Labor Secretary, Herbert Hill, conducted extensive negotiations with the Motion Picture Producers Association (MPPA), the heads of several major Hollywood studios and television networks, and officials of the labor/craft unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Although the NAACP’s campaign to eliminate racial bias in the entertainment industry received support from the Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America West, craft unions in Hollywood continued to openly and systematically exclude Blacks as electricians, cameramen, carpenters, propmen, and other craft positions.

In 1967, at the height of the civil rights movement, the Beverly Hills/Hollywood Branch of the NAACP, concerned about the portrayal of the Black experience, established the NAACP Image Awards to honor outstanding Black actors, actresses, writers, producers, directors, and recognized those working in Hollywood who supported those artists.

In 1980, Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks appointed a committee to look into the status of equal opportunity in Hollywood. The main focus of the committee was to examine the lack of opportunities for African Americans in the film industry. Despite the monumental events that had taken place in the movement for equal education, voting rights, women’s rights and employment laws, the entertainment industry remained intransigent.

As recognized by director Steven Spielberg at the 2000 NAACP Image Awards, the motion picture industry must confess its guilty hand in perpetuating the lack of diversity both in front of and behind the lens. As Mr. Spielberg then correctly stated, “there’s a lot to be done in the world we share. We still must acknowledge the painful absence of racial diversity within our very own industry. We need to hire studio executives of color. We need to foster young minority talent, both in front of and behind the scenes.”

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