The NAACP Image Awards – like its namesake organization – is a Black American institution. But I think if you asked the average Black person what they think the awards are for and what they mean, you’d get a wide array of answers. Not exactly what you want if you’re trying to make a statement about Black art.
If you look at the history of the NAACP Image Awards, it’s wildly inconsistent and, at times, inexplicable. They didn’t add music categories until 1980 and then proceeded to not bestow any awards during most of the first half of that decade – you know, when Michael Jackson was the biggest star in the world. R. Kelly won in 2001 at the first major round of scrutiny about his rape crimes. On the film side – they largely awarded well-made crowd pleasers through most of the 80s and 90s and then somehow in the new millennium awarded “Crash” and “The Fighting Temptations” and three flat-out terrible films in a row – “The Help,” “For Colored Girls,” and “Red Tails.”
To be fair, NAACP can only pull from what Hollywood makes and we know that Black film output ebbs and flows based on the racist whims of White executives. But 50 years into the game, it would probably behoove the Image Awards to professionalize and give the awards a more critical sheen.
Ostensibly, the NAACP Image Awards are about honoring Black art that uplifts the race – a slightly antiquated turn of phrase that still holds sway in some quarters. But like all things there are very different ideas about how one does this.
To that end, I thought I’d give you my own read on what I think the best of Black Hollywood has given us in 2021. This will be in two posts – one for film and one for television. I have not read nearly enough or listened to millennial/Gen-Z music enough to have an informed critique of those categories.
See my thoughts on which nominees Should Win and which ones I think Will Win after the jump:
Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture
- Mahershala Ali – “Swan Song”
- Jonathan Majors – “The Harder They Fall”
- Will Smith – “King Richard”
- LaKeith Stanfield – “Judas and the Black Messiah”
- Denzel Washington – “The Tragedy of Macbeth”
Should Win: Mahershala Ali.
These are all fine performances, but Mahershala’s working in a very different key from the others. It’s both subtle and beautiful. He should win.
Will Win: Will Smith
Will Smith has been nominated 12 times in this category, winning only once for “Seven Pounds” (lord…). Denzel has won 13 of the more than 20 times he’s been nominated in this category. I think Will wins because of the film, the genuine greatness of his performance, and the fact that it’s a way to honor the Williams family.
Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture
- Halle Berry – “Bruised”
- Andra Day – “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”
- Jennifer Hudson – “Respect”
- Tessa Thompson – “Passing”
- Zendaya – “Malcolm & Marie”
Should Win: Tessa Thompson.
Andra Day’s is the showier performance and it’s my second choice, but Tessa is carrying the weight of history in her every move. You buy her in the time period, in that relationship, in that marriage, in that world. It’s a performance so subtle and detailed that people are missing just how great it is. It’s the single best film performance of 2021, gender be damned.
Will Win: Jennifer Hudson
I think this is a toss up between Andra Day and Jennifer Hudson. Day’s performance is better, but the film is a disaster. So I give it to Hudson. She’s beloved and it’s Aretha.
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture
- Idris Elba – “The Harder They Fall”
- Daniel Kaluuya – “Judas and the Black Messiah”
- Delroy Lindo – “The Harder They Fall”
- Algee Smith – “Judas and the Black Messiah”
- LaKeith Stanfield – “The Harder They Fall”
Should Win and Will Win: Daniel Kaluuya
He’s the only good thing about the movie and he is going to win.
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
- Danielle Deadwyler – “The Harder They Fall”
- Aunjanue Ellis – “King Richard”
- Dominique Fishback – “Judas and the Black Messiah”
- Regina King – “The Harder They Fall”
- Audra McDonald – “Respect”
Should Win and Will Win: Aunjanue Ellis
Aunjanue can do no wrong even when saddled with the standard underwritten put-upon biopic wife role that always gets nominations.
Outstanding Breakthrough Performance in a Motion Picture
- Sheila Atim – “Bruised”
- Danny Boyd, Jr. – “Bruised”
- Lonnie Chavis – “The Water Man”
- Jalon Christian – “A Journal For Jordan”
- Ariana DeBose – “West Side Story”
Should Win and Will Win: Ariana DeBose
I didn’t see “Bruised,” but of the others DeBose is the only one with a substantial enough character to warrant inclusion here. And DeBose is the best thing in the movie so she wins.
Outstanding Ensemble Cast in a Motion Picture
- “Coming 2 America”
- “Judas and the Black Messiah”
- “King Richard”
- The Harder They Fall”
Should Win and Will Win: The Harder They Fall
This category is about performance alone. And the cast is unimpeachable even though the film is entirely style over substance. It’s a true ensemble and gives the NAACP a very easy way to honor 7 or 8 of the best Black actors currently working. It’s a no-brainer.
Outstanding Motion Picture
- “Judas and the Black Messiah”
- “King Richard”
- “The Harder They Fall”
- “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”
Should Win: King Richard
To be honest, these are all middling films bolstered by a handful of great performances. “The Harder They Fall” is the most stylish and has the clearest authorial voice, but “King Richard” – on balance – is the best film in the bunch and should win.
Will Win: Respect.
Everyone loves Will, but Aretha is royalty. It’s also the most meh of all the nominees and that’s sorta what middle-of-the-road NAACP Image Awards tend to like. I wouldn’t be surprised if “King Richard” wins though.
Outstanding Independent Motion Picture
- “American Skin”
- “Test Pattern”
- The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain”
Should Win: No idea
I didn’t see any of these so I can’t call it.
Will Win: Bruise.
My guess is that despite the timely nature of its subject matter “American Skin” is radioactive, so give it to Halle.
Outstanding International Motion Picture
- “7 Prisoners”
- “African America”
- “Eyimofe (This is My Desire)”
- “The Gravedigger’s Wife”
Should Win: 7 Prisoners
Young Christian Malheiros is the best actor working in Brazil right now and “7 Prisoners” is a harrowing, sobering film that does nothing that you expect and Malheiros makes it work beyond what I think is even on the page. It’s a tremendous performance in a stunningly beautiful and heartbreaking film.
Will Win: The Gravedigger’s Wife
This is a total guess, but it feels like the most obvious choice.
Outstanding Animated Motion Picture
- “Raya and the Last Dragon”
- “Sing 2”
Should Win and Will Win: Encanto
The film is inescapable and utterly delightful. No-brainer.
Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance – Motion Picture
- Eric André – “Sing 2”
- Awkwafina – “Raya and the Last Dragon”
- Andre Braugher – “Spirit Untamed”
- Brian Tyree Henry – “Vivo”
- Letitia Wright – “Sing 2”
Should Win: Brian Tyree Henry
He’s probably one of the two or three most exciting Black actors currently working and he’s quite good here.
Will Win: Andre Braugher
Braugher is among the most respected Black actors of his generation. He gets this one.
Outstanding Breakthrough Creative (Motion Picture)
- Rebecca Hall – “Passing”
- Jeymes Samuel – “The Harder They Fall”
- Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson – “Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
- Liesl Tommy – “Respect”
- Jamila Wignot – “Ailey”
Should Win and Will Win: Questlove
I think this is a three-way tie between Quest, Rebecca Hall and Jamila Wignot for “Ailey.” I think Ahmir edges out the competition as “Summer of Soul” reveals multitudes about a key moment in Black history. That’s NAACP catnip.