The first figure to walk the red carpet at the 50th NAACP Image Awards Nominees Luncheon this past Saturday was 97-year old Toni Vaz. The elder black woman walked gingerly, holding the arm of a guide, pausing for camera clicks and interviews like any celebrity getting their due—and this was well-deserved. If not for Ms. Vaz, a New York transplant with British West Indies and Panamanian roots, the 90-year old organization (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) might not be as significant as it is, or holding court at a venue as prominent as the Loews Hollywood Hotel. The original creator of the Image Awards, Vaz tells L.A. Weekly she never really expected her idea to have reached its current prominence and importance.
“We just wanted to see black people get better roles than when I first started out,” Vaz says. “We had the Aunt Jemimas and people with bad language…either we were fighting or prostitutes, so this is a big change.”
Her vision met the NAACP's mission at its fulcrum. Founded in 1909, after an onslaught of “anti-black” violence across the country, several white liberals including Mary White Ovington and Oswald Garrison Villard (both the descendants of famous abolitionists), William English Walling and Dr. Henry Moskowitz brought together over 60 community leaders to discuss racial injustice. Civil rights activists William Edward Burghardt (aka W. E. B.) Du Bois and Ida B. Wells-Barnett were in attendance and signed the call on the 100th year of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. With a focus on assuring African Americans received equal rights granted by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, the NAACP became a watch guard for civil rights.
Ninety years later, NAACP remains the nation's oldest and largest organization of its kind with over 400 chapters nationwide. Birthed in 1967 by the Hollywood Branch, of which Vaz was a member (and still is), the Image Awards became another way of fighting not just racial injustice but Hollywood’s stereotypical images of black people.
Fast forward to today: Katrina O’Gilvie, nominee for Outstanding Writing In A Motion Picture- Television, for Behind the Movement, says she feels like she is finally allowed to tell stories people need to hear.
“Our movie is about the four days between, when Rosa Parks doesn’t give up her seat in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was arrested, to the march. Most people think Rosa Parks was old and tired. It’s nice to be able to unlayer her and peel her open to let people know who she was. She was very quiet but she was very strong. She wasn’t big and flashy. Because of that, they had an incorrect perception of who she was,” O’Gilvie says.
Notably, Rosa Parks’ job as the secretary of the NAACP chapter in Montgomery became part of the impetus for her act of defiance.
“Her job was to record all the complaints that came through from the community,” O’Gilvie says. “She had volumes of these notebooks filled with complaints and at some point it can just break you. When she was sitting, refusing to stand because she was in the correct space, even though they were trying to get her to move, she was thinking about one of her friends who’d been thrown off a bus and she was thinking about Emmett Till who’d been recently murdered and whose murder was just released. Those factors made her contemplate the big opportunity to make a stand.”
Years later, those “factors” fueled Vaz’s initial desire to create better images, and eventually transformed not simply actors roles and access to Hollywood, but also changed the imagination of “blackness.”
Alongside seasoned actors such as Isaiah Washington (Behind the Movement) and Essence Atkins (Marlon), and newcomers Logan Browning (Dear White People) and Marcus Scribner (blackish), Toni Vaz held her own and received a standing ovation at the luncheon. She was, after all, the real star.
Winners of the 50th NAACP Image Awards will be revealed during the two-hour LIVE TV special airing on TV One on Saturday, March 30, 2019 at 9 p.m./8 p.m. CT from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, hosted by Anthony Anderson.
Voting is now open to the public for all general categories of the 50th NAACP Image Awards. Individuals do NOT need to be members of the NAACP in order to cast their votes and are welcome to participate at https://vote.naacpimageawards.net/Register.