There's something powerful about the word "image."
It's a representation, an idea that helps shape how we view the world around us. And it's a word that still carries a great weight today, perhaps a greater one than it did 46 years ago, when the NAACP hosted its first Image Awards in 1967, the same year race riots took place in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit.
Tonight, the social justice organization will celebrate the best of entertainment created by and starring black and brown people. The show will air live on TV One at 9 p.m. Eastern/8 p.m. Central, and it'll pay homage to networks and studios that dared to push the boundaries and tell stories that otherwise might never get told. It'll also acknowledge the work of those who won't see their accomplishments play out at a larger, more mainstream awards show. This year's show will be especially meaningful, considering that so much thought and narrative has centered on the role that image plays in mass media with regard to young black men. Plenty of examples can be cited here, including the killings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Mike Brown. Conversations on the menacing image of black men and the perceived threats they give off have dominated cable news programs for months now.
And this is all reflected in Hollywood.
NAACP president and CEO Cornell William Brooks said in an interview with BuzzFeed News that the lack of diversity of people engaged in fictionalized violence or fictionalized crime is disturbing. It doesn't help that there aren't many black or brown faces in Hollywood boardrooms who are cognizant of this and the role it might play to someone consuming the media.
That's not to say that the Image Awards reward only characters who go against the grain and epitomize positivity exclusively. The fullness of humanity and black citizenship — victors and villains — is represented at the show.
"There's a depth and diversity that you may not see elsewhere," Brooks said. "We don't have any preconceived notions about what black or brown people can or cannot do."
Reginald Hudlin, a filmmaker who produced Django Unchained and directed Boomerang among others, is the executive producer of the awards show. A former president of entertainment for BET, Hudlin said that the Image Awards serves as a chance to repaint a more complete picture of what blackness is. Doing that helps to dispel what is often seen as a monolithic image (often negative and in most cases threatening) that is continually dispensed and considered wholly representative.
"I think, ultimately, black people's problems is a PR problem," Hudlin said. "What will protect us as a people is our ability to deal a consequence to those [who treat us differently]. And that's the importance of the protests in Ferguson. That's the importance of the NAACP as an organization, that was formed to fight back against injustice."
In a larger sense, there shouldn't be a need for such an awards show in 2015. There's the idea that the acknowledgment and celebration of diverse representations of people of color should exist at larger mainstream forums, like the Emmys or the Oscars. But this show also comes on the heels of the Twitter campaign #OscarsSoWhite, where social media users had a field day lambasting the Academy Awards for its lack of diverse nominations in 2015. This is the whitest Oscar race since 1998, and several critics have said Selma director Ava DuVernay was overlooked for a Best Director Oscar nod and were surprised her star, David Oyelowo, failed to earn a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And it was a major headline in 2013 when Kerry Washington was nominated for a best actress Emmy because no black actress has been nominated in that category for a drama series Primetime Emmy in 18 years. This year, the big television story has been about the diverse casts of new shows like Black-ish, How to Get Away With Murder, and Empire and how they've been dominating the ratings game. It's yet to be determined what this year's Emmy race might look like and how these shows might fare.
But the Image Awards — often thought of by the stars who attend them as one big family reunion — is where work like this gets validation.
"We still need to celebrate world-class work being done by black creators … that may be getting overlooked by some of the other award shows," Hudlin added. "There will always be a place for the Image Awards, the same way there always will be a place for black universities. I think they can all coexist in a beautiful way. You can have the Grammys and the Latin Grammys. It's good to have family. It's always good to come home and get love from people who know and understand you. And that's what the Image Awards is."