*As African Americans in the television and film industry continue to expand past the trappings of racism in Hollywood toward true peer recognition, so too must the role of the African American film and television critic expand to enjoy universal recognition and respect.
While that sentence may sound good in theory, the truth of the matter is that most film and television press junkets feature the same cast of African American journalists, many of whom have been covering films for over 20 years. While there has been growth within the African American press who cover film, there is still a great deal more to be done. Veteran journalist Gil Robertson is found prominently among his contemporaries thanks in large part to his column The Robertson Treatment.
Back in 2003, Robertson, film critic Shawn Edwards and a group of colleagues consolidated their collective talents and good business names to form the African American Film Critics Association.
“There’s power in numbers and we work with the studios directly as well as the agencies that represent them,” said Robertson regarding the AAFCA’s ability to leverage influence and experience in Tinseltown. “We just had a very successful luncheon for several members over at (Allied Integrated Marketing). That’s something we’re going to continue to do in 2015. We’re going to meet with the marketing people and the publicity team at various studios. Sometimes it’s just about educating them and making sure they understand the importance of the Black community and the Black press to their bottom line.”
As is often the situation whenever people of African descent do business with members of the greater majority, the specter of racism ultimately rears its ugly head and seems omnipotent to Blacks while most White folks barely acknowledge its existence. That potential duality wounds many work relationships before a true business bond can be formed. People should not be reduced to the sum total of their racial attitudes, no matter the color of their skin.
However, so many African American media members have been affected by this ghost while many in the majority act ambiguous to. Part of the AAFCA’s charter is to represent a solid regarding the interests of the African American viewing audience through its collective power and strength, but a portal of knowledge and experience for the greater community of Black entertainment reporters as well.
“The goal here is the more people that are able to interact with our members, there will be some additional consideration given to the Black journalist,” he explained. “Black journalists have to do their part in terms of delivering. From my own experience, you have people who commit to doing things but then their follow through is poor. So, if we want these opportunities we have to be willing to put our best foot forward and deliver. We have to respect the Black press and the role that they play in the careers of Black talent, both in front of and behind the camera.”
On the other side of the coin, there are often rumblings within the Black press corps as to the level of appreciation they receive from Black artists before and after they make it big. For some, the difference is beyond noticeable how that appreciation wanes when some stars of color make it as a bankable mainstream actor.
“They get more love from us, we support them day in and day out, we play a crucial role in the development of their careers and we should be respected for the value,” said Robertson. “I think that Black talent and their representatives should specifically be called on the carpet because we do play such a crucial role. For that matter, talent across the board. Whether they be Black, White, Red or Yellow, they need to respect the critical role that Black journalists play in their careers.”
Though he agreed that African American journalists needed to be involved in the coverage of big budget film projects, but followed that up by saying that he was against offering additional consideration to reporters on skin color.
“Again, should Black journalists be given consideration just because they’re Black? No. It’s all about delivery. Delivering quality, delivering consistency, and all of that. Very often, Black journalists drop the ball. I’ve been a journalist for over 20 years, but what allowed me access on the junket circuit was the work that I did on my own column, The Robertson Treatment. And I do all that through a column that I don’t get paid for. I just am able to leverage it. Consistency was key in my positioning. That allowed me to establish a presence in the industry that studios and marketers respected. There for, you know, it was all good. That’s the suggestion I would give to other African Americans that are trying to do this. That’s what we’re here for. We’re here to try to nurture and support, not only the next generation, but other journalists who are having some difficulty. We want to work with the next generation of journalists in particular to properly prepare them for the realities of doing business in this industry.”
As is the case with most every industry, a very important key toward success for career success for many journalists is via mentorship. Robertson explains how he and the AAFCA are doing their part.
“We are doing that through our internship program at Clark-Atlanta and Howard University. Our Clark internship is going into its third year and our Howard internship will be starting in the fall of 2015. We also have plans to expand the program to Northwestern University and to USC in Los Angeles.”
This year has seen a multitude of high-quality content featuring Black thespians and directors visit the silver screen, but none has received the type of accolades that the Ava Duvernay directed film Selma. However, film’s such as Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw starrer Beyond the Lights, while original, beautifully acted and written, didn’t do as well as it should have at the box office. Selma, on the other hand, is blowing critics away. Critical acclaim is nice, but money makes things happen.
“That’s my concern too. Everybody can Tweet and Facebook, but where are they going to be on December 25 or January 9 when the film opens? Are you going to be spending your 10, 11 or 12 dollars to make sure that the film performs so that more films like it will be made? The bottom line is it’s great, the accolades are great and I love the attention that the film is getting but what’s even more important is what happens in terms of how we support the box office.”
“I think they did an incredible job with that. We definitely continued to move the needle, and I think we built upon what we saw last year. I think we saw greater diversity in terms of the stories. It wasn’t just historical dramas. You had everything from historical drama to comedies, to romantic narratives like Beyond the Lights, which is something that we never see. But the Black community didn’t do what it needed to do to support Beyond the Lights and some of the other films. You can’t expect someone to welcome you to party if you don’t ever support. Hollywood is a business and they’re not going to continue to make films that they don’t make money off of. Just like you would look for another job if you’re not making enough to support yourself.”
In addition to the lingering angst many creators of African descent suffer in Hollywood regarding the Black dollar’s impact on their bottom line, some Black journalists believe they are being excluded from major mainstream. A live one-on-one interview is always preferable to a phoner and a marketing firm’s insistence upon the latter over the former is looked upon as somewhat belittling to one’s professional pride.
“It can’t always be about a free trip. Sometimes you may have to do a phoner. Sometimes you’re not going to get invited on the junket. But it’s important to deliver your highest quality so that people will know that they can count on you and that you in fact deserve to get any extra perks that may be available out there.”
In February, the AAFCA will hold the Sixth Annual AAFCA Awards in Los Angeles. It’s no surprise that Selma is presenting hard in every category. Including, David Oweyolo for Best Actor, Ava Duvernay for Best Director and a Best Song nomination for the Common/John Legend collaboration from the Selma soundtrack “Glory”. Other award winners include Gugu Mbatha-Raw for Best Actress in Belle, Octavia Spencer for Best Supporting Actress in Black or White and Breakout Performance for Tessa Thompson in Dear White People. The AAFCA will throw its annual award ceremony and dinner on February 4, 2015 at the Taglyan Complex in Hollywood, CA.