The Networking Titan of 'Black Hollywood'
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because his work is an answer to the Oscars whiteout.
By Taylor Mayol
For Gil Robertson, the Oscars are like that cranky old uncle you see once a year: Funny for the first hour, but then he gets a tad offensive, telling jokes that are definitely off-color and probably racist. And yet, you have no choice but to love him, because, as Robertson says, “The Oscars are what they are.”
If the sentiment is one of resignation, the delivery sounds amused — especially in Robertson’s easy, molasses drawl. Ever since January, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released a slate of Oscar nominees that included exactly zero Black actors, Robertson has become a go-to source for media commentary and quotes. He’s in the Root, opining on the best Black performances of 2015, and the Los Angeles Times, hyping the alternative “Black Oscars” he helped create, and USA Today, arguing against an Oscar boycott and striking a note of optimism: In 20 years, he wrote, we’ll consider “Oscargate 2016” the catalyst for diversity in Hollywood.
But overnight success often requires years of effort, and Robertson, 51, has been a fixture in Hollywood for nearly three decades, first as a reporter and film critic, then as co-founder of the African American Film Critics Association. Along the way, he has created a star-studded network of connections and a vehicle for African-American actors, directors and screenwriters to get at least some recognition. Behind the scenes, and behind that genteel manner, Robertson moves and shakes the industry, and if you’re a member of “Black Hollywood,” you certainly know him. He is one of “very few people who put themselves in the position to congregate others around an idea,” says director Ava DuVernay, who met Robertson back when they were part of an even tinier slice of Hollywood than today.
Robertson maintains he isn’t trying to compete with the Academy.
When Robertson and I meet for lunch at Musso and Frank’s, a bastion of old-school Hollywood glamour, he tells me he grew up not far away, in South Central — his daddy refused to call it “Midtown” or by any other euphemism. After a brief stint as a political campaigner (for left-leaning candidates, of course) traversing the Pacific Northwest, Robertson decided that what he really wanted to do was to write plays. Journalism seemed like a good entrée into that world, so he moved back home and started covering Hollywood. Even back then, he focused on Black directors and actors and films that others ignored. He soon became a constant contributor to top-flight publications like Ebony, Black Enterprise and Vibe. By now, he says, he’s snagged more than 50 national magazine cover stories.
The African American Film Critics Association was born in Manhattan, in 2003, when Robertson was on a press junket. Then, as now, there was a lot of frustration about Hollywood’s lack of diversity, and Robertson’s cohort of Black film critics who regularly traveled to movie premieres were sick and tired of being passed over for access and of seeing the same films and actors win awards. All the grumbling got to him: “Folks wanna sit around and talk, and that’s fine, but let’s move our talk into action,” he says. Though the AAFCA remains small, with about 30 members, “nearly all” Black film critics are members, Robertson says. Its awards ceremony — DuVernay’s brainchild — is now in its seventh year, and Robertson says it’s closing in on a deal that would televise it.
The AAFCA Awards are not yet widely known, and there has been some dissension in the ranks — including a kerfuffle about alleged ballot rigging in 2010 (Robertson calls it “unfortunate”). Moreover, there are some in Black Hollywood who think the awards shouldn’t even exist. AAFCA co-founder Shawn Edwards summarizes the dissent as follows: There’s no point in separating the awards from the Oscars. But Robertson maintains he isn’t trying to compete with the Academy, a nearly 90-year-old institution and the same old stuck-in-the-mud uncle. Instead, he sees the AAFCA Awards as a complement, and, he points out, they aren’t entirely race-based. When Felicity Huffman was the AAFCA’s first best actress pick for her role in Transamerica, “people went insane,” says Robertson. His response? “Hold on, we’re Black, yes, but we are voting for the best,” whether they’re “white, yellow or orange.” After all, he points out, you don’t have to be British to win a BAFTA.
For half the year, Robertson retreats to a house in suburban Marietta, Georgia, where pesky opossums are the most complicated thing he has to deal with. Los Angeles is for meeting, greeting, planning and networking; Marietta is for feeding the creative part of his soul and writing books about love, his brother’s experience living with HIV and what it means to be Black in America today. Next up? A children’s book about African-American politicians. And fiction. And documentaries. His past has told him his future is limitless.
But he’s also looking to seed the next generation of Black film critics, with an AAFCA internship program at Clark Atlanta University (similar programs will launch at Howard University and Northwestern University this year). Maybe one day the interns will become members of the AAFCA. Then, they can continue to recognize the Ryan Cooglers and Michael B. Jordans of the film world, at least until the day when the Oscars aren’t so very white.