The Critics’ Choice Association (CCA) recently held its Celebration of Black Cinema awards to honor some of the biggest names in Black Hollywood for the substantive work they’ve contributed to the industry and the mark they continue to leave on Black culture. The ceremony itself is inspired by the late Oscar Micheaux, penned as the world’s first major Black filmmaker.
Held at the Landmark Annex Theatre in Hollywood, a slew of producers, writers, actors and Black film critics gathered for the remarkable night of celebration. Honorees included legendary actor and comedian, Eddie Murphy, cinematic sweetheart Nia Long, super director, producer and screenwriter, Kasi Lemmons and a true Brit, actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Presenters included Academy Award-winning costume designer, Ruth E. Carter, Debra Martin Chase and Chaz Ebert. Former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs served as the night’s hostess.
Prior to the ceremonies, the Sentinel caught up with Academy Award-winning actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, known for his gut-wrenching performance in 12 Years a Slave. We asked about Ejiofor’s perspective on the state of Black cinema and he affectionately stated that “Black cinema has such a rich and long history and is not often, in isolation, celebrated.” “It’s important going forward,” he said, “but it’s also important in preserving moments in history for future generations to embrace.”
Honored for his performance, as well as his directorial and screenwriting debut in the Netflix feature film “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” Ejiofor says the key to storytelling in Black cinema is to “find your voice by working out who you are.” “Shut out the rest of the noise and really listen to your instinct, your gut, what you think of yourself and what you want to bring into the conversation,” he added.
Kasi Lemmons made her Rockstar entry into the world of filmmaking back in 1997 with the directorial debut of the Southern classic, “Eve’s Bayou” and says continuing the legacy of Black cinema means “not taking no for an answer.” As an actress who didn’t hesitate to put her own vision to work on the big screen, the Harriet mega director and screenwriter says, “now is the time of great opportunity, to use our art as a weapon for justice and for good.”
Using freedom fighter Harriet Tubman’s life as a testament, Lemmons says “we have to pray we’re strong enough to fight, because we have so many fights ahead. We have to fight for our country, for our planet, for our children and their children,” she said. “We have to fight against autocracy and ignorance, against bigotry and oppression in all of its forms, against those who would try to divide us because together, we have the power to change the world, like Harriet,” Lemmons proclaimed.
And Lemmons isn’t done yet. She’ll soon be debuting a mini-series on Netflix documenting the life and works of Madam C. J. Walker.
Nia Long, known for starring in movies dripped in Black excellence such as “Love Jones,” “The Best Man,” and “Soul Food,” gave quite the emphatic speech about her “beautifully complicated” road as a Black actress in Hollywood. Long effectually detailed the “joy and heartbreak” of speaking truth to power when it wasn’t popular just to receive the same respect as her peers on any given film production.
“I’ve had the audacity to challenge authority and voice strong opinions when I was expected to just be pretty and be quiet,” Long said. “I’ve been paid far less than the men standing next to me and the women who don’t look anything like me, when the success in numbers and dollars are pretty close, more often than most of the time. I cried behind closed doors, moments before action, because of my experiences in the hair and makeup trailer, experiences which have at times, robbed me of my confidence and my peace of mind.”
Long even said that for years, she traveled on sets with her own makeup and hair straightening tools to circumvent entering a production set that “wasn’t designed to cater” to her beauty needs. As an actress, philanthropist and advocate who’s lived her life to affect change, Long summoned all directors and producers in the industry to provide Black actresses with the tools they need to succeed. “Our day starts with hair, makeup and wardrobe. If your cast is Black, then hire a qualified Black support team instead of labeling us difficult or opinionated; we deserve a pleasant experience as we prepare to create,” she said.
Also, quite befitting to receiving her honor, Long recalled some of the precious memories with late writer, actor, director and producer, John Singleton and his unwavering belief in her talent and star power. “John saw something in me that I had yet to discover,” she said. “He encouraged my drive, he saw my purpose, he saw my passion and my commitment to storytelling,” Long continued. Accredited to being her “angel on earth” and now her “angel with God,” Long says Singleton’s impact on her life will always be cherished.
Long also left the audience with words that Eddie Murphy gave to her early on in her career. “Never feel guilty about your success,” she said of Murphy’s advice to her.
After effortlessly slipping past a group of superfans to enter the venue at approximately 7:47pm, a very dapper Eddie Murphy arrived on the scene where he was awaited by special sentiments from his peers and understudies. In an eloquent introduction from Oscar-award winning costumer designer, Ruth E. Carter, she said, “Eddie Murphy doesn’t just play African royalty impeccably on screen, he is royalty,” referring to him as one who is “authentic and values the audience.” “He’s one of the few actors who has perfected the art of playing alongside himself,” she continued.
Murphy, who’s relished as a staple in American film and comedy, says he remembers the days, nearly 40 years ago when “there were no African American film critics.” Murphy went on to say that, “actually, there was one, and that n**** was crazy; I used to always want to fight him,” he said jokingly. “The Nutty Professor,” “Coming to America,” and Beverly Hills Cop films actor went on to express the sparsity of Black hair, makeup and wardrobe departments on to the non-existence of Black producers at the time. “It was rough,” he said.
Murphy then sidesplittingly urged the audience to “go look at an old Sidney Poitier movie,” saying, “Sidney is such a great actor, he was able to act like his hair was combed.” The crowd burst into laughter, but we all knew just how far Black Cinema has come, and how far we must go. Murphy was brief, quick-witted and humbly thanked everyone for their support over the years. “I want to thank you so much, it’s always a wonderful thing to be honored and to hear those wonderful things said about you,” he said.
Murphy recently starred in the UK released film, “Dolemite is My Name,” and is preparing for the highly-anticipated release of “Coming 2 America.”
As we celebrate more than 100 years of Black Cinema, let’s continue, as the honorees have done, to expand the legacy of Black film and entertainment through action and lead with the unmitigated wherewithal to create change for generations to come. To see exclusive interviews honorees and guests from the evening, head over to www.lasentinel.net.