With controversy raging over the lack of diversity among this year’s Academy Award acting nominees, organizers of the Tree of Life Awards, informally known as the “Black Oscars,” are reportedly considering reviving the defunct awards ceremony as way of honoring the industry’s top black talent.
The Tree of Life Awards were begun in 1981 by Washington, D.C. attorney Albert Nellum and retired in 2007, the same year that Forrest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson and Dreamgirls sound mixer Wille D. Burton took home top awards at the Oscars, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The industry’s most prolific black entertainers gathered at a Hollywood hotel on the night before the Academy Awards and toasted each other’s accomplishments. Earning an Oscar nomination got one an automatic invitation to the ceremony; stars like Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington, Queen Latifah, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle and Vivica A. Fox have all been honored at the awards show.
Instead of the Academy, the event was organized and overseen by a private group called Friends of the Black Oscar Nominees. Journalists were invited to the ceremony, but were encouraged not to write about it.
Gil Robertson, president of the African-American Film Critics Association, described the event to the Times as a “symbolic gesture [to black Hollywood] to say, ‘I see you. We can do this, and so we are.'”
“It was something that was needed because we were all over the place trying to make our careers, which were dependent on [mainstream] acceptance,” Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr., who co-hosted the Tree of Life Awards in 2002, told the Times. “This got us ‘back to the roots’ to recognize one another and encourage one another to continue on. It was an extremely important thing.”
The 2003 event was hosted by Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith and took place at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Honorees included Washington, Viola Davis, Morgan Freeman, Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson, according to a write-up of the evening in Jet magazine.
The annual event was retired in 2007 after eight African-Americans were nominated at that year’s Academy Awards.
However, after a second consecutive year in which the Academy nominated exclusively white actors in top categories at the Oscars — leading to pledges of boycott from top stars like Will Smith and Spike Lee and a dramatic overhaul of the Academy’s voting rules and organizational structure — organizers have expressed interest in bringing back the “Black Oscars,” actress-director Debbie Allen told the Times.
“It was always a celebration of what accomplishments black people had done in the film industry,” Allen said. “Sound, music directors, actors, whatever your participation was, you were honored.”
The 88th Academy Awards airs Sunday, February 28th on ABC.