“And The Winner Is…” The African American Film Critics Association Goes Global

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Mario and melvin peeblesDirector John Singleton has praised it. Filmmaking legend Melvin Van Peebles has even given it the thumbs up. No, it’s not the latest film, but an organization dedicated to empowering film journalists and filmmakers, called the African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), a collective of Black film critics.


AAFCA, which was launched in 2003 by award-winning journalist Gil L. Robertson IV and fellow film critic Shawn Edwards, reviews cinema at-large, with a particular emphasis on films, which include the Black experience. AAFCA members are also involved in advocacy work, which includes programming for students interested in film criticism and journalism.



Now, the AAFCA’s “Top-10 List” of the year’s best movies has been able to uncannily predict which films will be the season’s award winners. “We have been very successful in bestowing our award to individuals and projects that go on to do very well at other award shows. I think it’s because our members have a profound respect for the cinematic arts and can feel the pulse of which films resonate the best in any given year,” says AAFCA president Robertson, who has turned just announcing the AAFCA best list into an annual awards dinner show, the African-American Film Critics Association 2011 Awards Dinner. 



“Having a dinner was always part of AAFCA’s bucket list back when we first announced our first awards in 2003,” explains Robertson. “However, wanting to produce a dinner show and doing so are two different things. The organization needed to establish itself first within the industry as a legitimate entity to generate the type of support needed to make a show successful. In 2009 we were given that opportunity, so we produced our first show, which allowed us to create a tangible imprint for our brand. People love a thoughtful and quality show and that’s what we strive to deliver every year. The show has grown steadily and we are now accepted and included on Hollywood’s Awards Calendar.”

As with any organization that delivers awards, AAFCA has seen its share of controversy. In 2009, when the film, Precious, swept the AAFCA awards, there was talk of vote tampering. Some AAFCA members (including Edwards) split from the original group and formed the Black Film Critics Circle. AAFCA, soon afterwards, announced that final tabulations for all AAFCA Award categories will be handled by a Beverly Hills accountant not affiliated with the group.



With this slight setback behind them, AAFCA members are focused on expansion. AAFCA is also expanding to partner with various film festivals. “Film festivals are fertile ground where African American filmmakers and journalists can meet and create productive synergy,” notes Robertson. “For more than a decade AAFCA has partnered with the leading African American festivals to not only stay in step with Black filmmakers, but through our panel discussions, provide emerging filmmakers – and the audiences that enjoy them – with a greater understanding of the role we can play in their success.”



Most recently the organization decided to team up with the Cape Verde International Film Festival (CVIFF), which takes place annually in the West African nation of Cape Verde (Cabo Verde) on the island of Sal. “It’s long been a goal of AAFCA to partner with international festivals so that we can cement our goal of delivering support and exposure to the work of artists who represent the African diaspora,” offers Robertson. “Cape Verde is home to some amazing filmmakers and we feel honored to make a connection with them. It’s a beautiful country with very talented people who have great stories to tell. We are looking forward to collaborating with their creative team for their 2013 event and beyond.”



“The United States is home to the largest and the oldest Cape Verdean Diaspora population, dating as far back as the 19th century. So connecting with AAFCA, which part of its mission aims to work with the African Diaspora, made real sense to give it a try and develop a partnership,” says CVIFF founder Suely Ramos Neves. “Given the experience of the staff and board members of AAFCA, we’re really looking forward to learning from them. CVIFF was launched in 2010, so we’re brand new and loaded with ambitious ideas. We’re very excited and optimistic about this partnership. Anything is possible so we’re hopeful that we’ll have a true exchange of experience and great ideas.”



Neves hopes the partnership with AAFCA will help the festival’s goal of international recognition. “When we launched CVIFF, our ultimate goal was to have an international representation through the films submitted as well as those in attendance. But we knew that this would take time. It’s not going to happen overnight especially when the idea of actually having an international film festival is relatively new in Cabo Verde,” explains Neves, who receives a growing number of submissions from local filmmakers and those in Europe, but not very many from the U.S. “Although Cabo Verde is a small country, we have a very large diaspora — we are everywhere. And because of this, Cabo Verde is connected to the world in a very special way and we believe that CVIFF will very soon present to Cabo Verde and the world, via its diaspora and new dynamics for cultural exchange. So reaching beyond Cabo Verde and Europe is a must.”



Besides developing international relationships, AAFCA is also helping to develop the next generation of film critics. AAFCA has also launched its first student internship program at Clark-Atlanta University. “Working with the next generation of film journalists is central to the core of who we are as an organization,” says Robertson. “The organization has already made a lot of inroads towards that goal with our film festival partners, but we wanted to connect even closer to journalists who are passionate about film through a partnership with colleges and universities. We are currently in talks with several academic institutions across the country, but Clark-Atlanta was the first campus that we’ve formally announced.”



There is still more news for AAFCA. They just debuted their first radio program, AAFCA Radio distributed by CBS Radio. “We are currently shopping an AAFCA-produced radio segment called “C U At The Movies,” with radio partners around the country and expect to be up and running on several (including several CBS radio affiliates) before the year’s end,” reveals Robertson.



Obviously, AAFCA is proving to be a winner.