Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Lauryn Hill. They are the darlings of the entertainment industry, and all are African-American.
But the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People says they are the exceptions. By and large, NAACP leaders say, blacks are excluded from entertainment industry awards.
So there's the NAACP Image Awards. The show airs at 8 tonight on Channel 45 FOX-TV.
Created to counteract some of those alleged oversights by highlighting the achievements of black entertainers, the 30th Image Awards come as the NAACP, in its 90th year, has healthy finances and strong leadership.
But it is dogged by questions of relevance, questions reflected in the Image Awards themselves.
"The Image Awards is a historical anachronism," said David Bositis, a policy analyst from the Joint Center of Political and Economic Studies, which tracks African-American issues.
Each year, even as NAACP leaders issue congressional report cards and criticize the Supreme Court for not hiring more minority clerks, nothing attracts more interest to the organization than this schmooze-fest of black Hollywood.
It is by far the biggest annual fund-raiser for the grass-roots activist organization -- but the cheapest tickets cost $60 apiece and the ceremony has little to do with civil rights.
"There's a certain defensiveness to the idea of the Image Awards, and I think if you look at the totality of the black population, the success, the diversity and everything else like that, such defensiveness is no longer necessary," Bositis said.
But, said Joe Madison, a former NAACP national board member and former chairman of the awards, "Those entertainers and those stars have the same problems that all of us [African-Americans] have: being recognized for their talents, being given opportunities when opportunity is denied."
Black entertainers have been embraced by audiences nearly as long as there has been an America. But, until desegregation, those performers often were barred from renting hotel rooms or eating at restaurants alongside whites in their audiences.
They were largely ignored at award time.
In 1962, the NAACP's Los Angeles branch stepped in to fill that gap with the first Image Awards, a fund-raiser that featured Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr. and other black stars -- many of whom were deeply touched "to be recognized by your own," as the ceremony's current executive director, Ernestine Peters, put it.
By the mid-1990s, the awards ceremony, like the NAACP, was mired in mismanagement and debt -- $1.5 million. With board members demanding chauffeured limousines and hotel suites, it was on the verge of collapse. Then-Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams canceled the 1995 ceremony for the seventh time since it was founded and regrouped.
The next year, the Image Awards made $500,000. By last year, that figure had doubled.
Some say the Image Awards are hotly defended within the Baltimore-based NAACP largely because the show is a big money-maker.
Asked whether he could envision a time when the Image Awards will no longer be needed, NAACP board Chairman Julian Bond said: "I don't anticipate that time coming anytime soon. Don't forget, it's also a fund-raiser for us."
And a party? "That too."
This is a problem, said Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park. An organization devoted to combating white supremacy should do just that -- in politics, education and entertainment -- but it should not try to counteract that prejudice by becoming part of Hollywood, he said.
"It's not the job of the NAACP to manage this problem," Walters says. "It's not necessary anymore. You shouldn't have civil rights organizations managing these Hollywood-type productions."
He does not argue that the Image Awards program is unnecessary. But black entertainers, not the NAACP, should give the awards, he said.
"Black artists don't get their just deserts," he said. "It doesn't happen. Zip. The issue of image is a tremendous problem."
This year, no blacks -- and no Latinos, Asians or Native Americans -- were nominated for a major Academy Award. Lauryn Hill won five Grammy awards, the most ever for a woman, but the Grammys ignored most rappers, who are some of the most influential musicians around.
Additionally, some argue that the Image Awards are important because they reflect the tastes of black America, which often are vastly different from whites'. Neilsen Media Research data show that the most popular television shows among whites are at the bottom of the heap among blacks -- and vice versa.
"There are so many ways that [Americans] are alike, but people like different things," says Chuck Whitehead, chairman of the Image Awards and a national NAACP board member. "We just have different tastes."
The Image Awards, which were announced after the taping Feb. 13 and 14 in Pasadena, Calif., in part reflect the tastes of black America: "Sinbad's Summer Jam 4" was named best variety series or special, and the award for best news, talk or information series went to "BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley: Is Slavery Funny?"
But among the 41 competitive categories, such as best children's show and gospel artist, were predictable winners. "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," the love story that was popular with white and black audiences, won best film, actress (Angela Bassett) and supporting actress (Whoopie Goldberg).
Bond gave the Chairman's Award to Harry Belafonte, and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume gave his award to Hill.
"If Sammy Davis Jr. was to come back today, he'd see that not much has changed. We can't see ourselves reflected," Mfume said. "The Image Awards is a way to say, `Thank you,' in a way that all other programs have not done and are not going to do."
Pub Date: 3/04/99