African American Film Critics group celebrates Black Hollywood and beyond while building its stature

FILE - Sterling K. Brown, from left, Ryan Michelle Bathe and Gil Robertson attend the 15th Annual AAFCA Awards on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File) (Richard Shotwell, 2024 Invision)

LOS ANGELES – Filmmaker Ava DuVernay remembered working as a publicist years ago, struggling to draw major traffic to star-studded events for the African American Film Critics Association.

No matter which renowned Black actor showed up — from Viola Davis to Forest Whitaker — the organization known as AAFCA still had a hard time garnering mainstream media's attention and attendance from non-Black honorees to its flagship awards ceremony and other events. But the group, led by co-founder and president Gil Robertson IV, stayed its course to review and pay homage to Black actors and filmmakers detailing the African American experience.

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Now, two decades after its founding as a small organization, AAFCA has grown in size and scope and built an admirable reputation in Hollywood. Its Special Achievement Awards will be held this weekend.

“It was an idea. It was a dream. It was this little dinky thing, but it was always beautiful,” said DuVernay, whose public relations company represented AAFCA the first few years before she became a filmmaker. “It was rough around the edges. It was respect. The community came, the press wouldn’t cover it. Actors, creatives, writers, and directors immediately jumped to it. We worked hard to establish what it was... So, I have a great affection for this group.”

These days, AAFCA has become a consistent support base for Black Hollywood and beyond. The organization's annual awards has evolved into a glitzy affair with high-profile attendees such as Oprah Winfrey, Jamie Foxx and Will Smith. Non-Black honorees have also become regulars, such as Native American and Oscar nominee Lily Gladstone, who was recognized for her breakout role in “ Killers of the Flower Moon ” during AAFCA's 15th annual awards ceremony last month in Beverly Hills.

Throughout the year, AAFCA pushes to leave an influential mark with a few tentpole events including its annual awards; AAFCA Goes to Broadway in New York; AAFCA TV Honors and the Special Achievement Awards, which will be given out Sunday in Los Angeles.

AAFCA partnered this year with Delta Air Lines for a curated in-flight film collection to celebrate Black History Month and joined forces with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts to launch a monthly conversation to help Black creatives navigate the industry. Last year, the organization collaborated with the Grammy Museum to explore the intersection of music and storytelling through a yearlong program.

“We have reach,” said Robertson, a longtime journalist and author. His organization was launched in 2003 after the founders noticed the lack of Black journalistic voices covering the film industry from an African diaspora. The group has grown to 130 members — including businesswoman Chaz Ebert and entertainment journalist Kelley L. Carter — from across the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean.

“This is not just another chicken dinner,” he said.

Madeline Di Nonno, president and CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, said Robertson’s ability to genuinely befriend people connected to the TV and film industry has contributed to AAFCA’s sustainability. She noted how the awards has been able to draw non-Black creative attendees such as Oscar winners Frances McDormand, Kathryn Bigelow and Bong Joon-ho.

“When Gil calls, you jump,” said Di Nonno, who was honored in 2019 as part of AAFCA’s events recognizing women in cinema. “You don’t jump because of fear. You jump out of love and respect. AAFCA has deep, longstanding respect. It’s always high caliber, high quality, very strategic.”

DuVernay credits Robertson for ensuring that AAFCA makes its presence felt in Hollywood. She said his efforts within the film community are “deeply felt.”

“He’s going to show up to your place. He’s going to show up to your premiere,” DuVernay said of Robertson. “He’s going to show up to your set. He’s going to make sure that you see him around town, and it’s not in a flashy way. It feels like community. He’s from here. He been living here, and he’s seen so many of these careers from their infancy. He’s been a source of consistent on the ground presence.”

DuVernay praised AAFCA for being a support base for those in Black Hollywood who are overlooked elsewhere.

“AAFCA has been a beautiful example of building your own house approach,” said the director, who was recently honored by the organization for her film “ Origin,” a critically acclaimed project that was hardly recognized during Hollywood’s award season. “It allows for there to be a sense of pride, commitment, solidarity within a community that’s inside a larger community.”

As an independent filmmaker, Deon Taylor can attest. The director said he's been overlooked for much of his career — except from AAFCA.

“Ain’t nobody thinking of me, but Gil and AAFCA did,” said Taylor, who directed “Meet the Blacks,” “The Intruder,” “Fatale” and “Black and Blue.” He’s become a major player in the independent filmmaking space through his Hidden Empire Film Group, but he hasn’t been invited to the Independent Spirit Awards.

Taylor will be honored Sunday at AAFCA's Special Achievement Awards for being a talent on the rise.

“Gil watched my trajectory,” he said. “He saw me when no one else did. How is it possible that you could have this level of success and you’ve never even been invited to the Independent Spirit Awards? You and your wife. Think about that. Everything we’ve made has been independent at the highest-level making money. And we ain’t never got an invite to the Spirit Awards or to an independent event. That’s what Gil represents.”

Taylor applauded Robertson for honoring director Antoine Fuqua and actor Will Smith last year for their film “Emancipation.” It came during a time when Smith faced backlash for his Oscars slap and a 10-year banishment from Academy Awards events.

“Instead of turning his back on him and his project, he viewed Will as an artist,” Taylor said. “He celebrated Will and Antoine's artistry, because they worked their (expletive) off on that movie. He awarded them. That's what it's about, right? ... That's what AAFCA represents.”

Robertson is excited about the organization’s future. Along with growing its tentpole events, he’s looking to move into more curation spaces, increase its range of partnerships and close major book deals.

He also wants to continue pushing AAFCA's initiatives to recognize heritage months for LGBTQ, Latino and Asian-Pacific communities and women's history.

“We’re looking to continue to expand our footprint,” Robertson said. “I think the next 20 years will be filled with new opportunities.”

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