The African-American Film Critics Association Award ceremony honored the variety of Black experiences depicted on screen, along with Black excellence in front of and behind the camera. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Till, Emancipation and The Woman King were among the top winners at Wednesday’s event at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. The occasion, hosted by Roy Wood Jr., also marked Will Smith’s first return to an awards stage following the 2022 Academy Awards.
When accepting the Beacon Award for Emancipation, Smith (who arrived to a flurry of cameras and hugs) said: “Emancipation was the individual most difficult film of my entire career … It’s really difficult to transport a modern mind to that time period. It’s difficult to imagine that level of inhumanity.” After recalling filming a tense scene in the summertime on set, Smith continued: “In this room are people who really suffer for the art, to bring these stories to the screen — and to deliver them in a way that has emotional impact for the telling of our stories and hopefully just the subtle possibility to change a heart, or a mind.”
Sidney, Apple’s film on Sidney Poitier, won for best documentary. The award was accepted by director Reginald Hudlin’s daughter, along with two of Poitier’s daughters, Anika and Sidney Poitier, who thanked the team behind the doc for “the deep care and respect” that they treated their father’s story with, and for “allowing him to tell it in his own words to the best of their abilities.”
Till’s Danielle Deadwyler won best actress for her portrayal of Mamie Till-Mobley, and she spoke about the significance of “the act of looking,” an act which encapsulates the story of Till-Mobley’s advocacy for her slain son. “The act of looking, the act of witnessing is presently a dire choice for the Black experience, being of it or in proximity to it. And it can’t be iterated enough that those forces that seek to exclude our work and the fingerprints of our handprint on this place, persist,” she said. “Mamie taught the country, the world and especially herself to look intently and carefully and lovingly.”
Jordan Peele and two of his collaborators were honored as well. Michael Abels — a composer for Peele’s trio of films, among others — won the Innovator Award and thanked the AAFCA voting body for acknowledging “those of us behind the camera … all of us who are also contributing to film, telling our stories in our own ways, with our own gifts.”
Peele also called animator Henry Selick, who celebrated Peele as “one of the most dynamic, successful, modern filmmakers on the planet,” to the stage to accept the best animated feature award for Wendell & Wild, which Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions produced. “When I was growing up, I fell in love with a film called Nightmare Before Christmas,” Peele said. “This film helped me to fall in love with puppetry … This wonderful aesthetic was something I felt aspirational toward.”
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever had a major presence in the room; director Ryan Coogler, producer Nate Morris, actress Angela Bassett and production designer Hannah Beachler were all in attendance.
Coogler introduced Morris, a producer in the film division at Marvel Studios who was awarded the Ashley Boone Award at the show, by painting a funny and intimate portrait of how the pair’s working relationship grew into a brotherhood over the course of creating the Black Panther cinematic universe.
“I think what’s interesting about my job is I get to help people like Ryan Coogler make films that they love,” Morris said. “Because unless our stories are told, the next generation of filmmakers doesn’t get to see themselves on screen. And as our history is under attack, it’s more important than ever that our stories are out there.”
Beachler, who has worked with Coogler several times beginning with 2013’s Fruitvale Station, won the Building Change Award, and she meditated on the word in her acceptance speech: “Change is healing. It’s a belief like faith, it’s a belief in the human condition, that it can be restored and made better.”
Bassett, who has won previous prizes for the film as best supporting actress throughout this award season, channeled a similar power to the one her character Queen Ramonda possesses when she accepted her award: “Every role that I have taken on has been to break through those perceptions of us as Black women, to show our humanity, to tell the diversity of our stories and to share the complexities of what it means to be Black, and woman.” The actress reflected on her multi-decade career and invoked the names of the Black female artists (Ruby Dee, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson) before her whose “broad and bold ancestral shoulders” she stands on, thanking them for their sacrifice.
Black female directors were celebrated for their work breaking through the glass ceilings that hover over the intersection of their Blackness and womanhood in Hollywood. Independent filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu, whose film Nanny was named best independent feature, shared that a central focus of her work as a first-generation American born to parents from Sierra Leone is to bridge the gap that often divides the Black diaspora, saying: “We are so much stronger together than we are fractured.”
And Gina Prince-Bythewood took home the best director award for her Viola Davis-driven epic The Woman King. “The Woman King was such a profound experience … It was absolutely the hardest shoot of my career, but also the most beautiful,” she said. “I truly loved making this film. And what amplified the love is that we got to reframe history, our history, which has been so bombarded with historically inaccurate information. For so many of us, our history is talked about as enslavement and victimization and savagery. Being able to do The Woman King and tell our story the right way machetes that.”
Davis echoed those sentiments later on, saying: “Our jobs as artists is to show who we are in our privacy. We have to continue to do that. We have to continue to be messy. I feel like that is my privilege of a lifetime … to be beautifully messy.”