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A Night Out at the Harlem Oscar Boycott

“We nominated the films that should have been nominated.”

Kia Gregory

Inside the Shrine World Music Venue in Harlem on Sunday afternoon, four golden statues stood under the stage on a table covered in white. The statues were shaped in the likeness of Ptah, a creator god in Egyptian mythology—the model, the organizers of the Harlem Oscar Boycott party claimed, of the familiar gold-plated Oscar statue. 

As the DJ played Afrobeat music and voters danced, movie trailers of the nominees rolled on a big screen: Idris Elba’s warlord, taunting a child-soldier played by Abraham Attahin in Beasts of No Nation; “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY” flashing in blood-red letters in director Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq; Will Smith as a doctor reviewing the brain scans of a NFL player in Concussion, Michael B. Jordan sparring in the boxing ring in Creed; and O’Shea Jackson Jr. portraying his father and former NWA rap group member Ice Cube being slammed by a police officer onto the hood of a car in Straight Outta Compton

None of these five films—movies starring black actors and centering on black stories—were to be honored at the Academy Awards later that evening, an event that was overshadowed by debates over Hollywood inclusion and racial injustice. But while Chris Rock was preparing his monologue, a different awards ceremony was underway at the Shrine, where about three-dozen people came together to celebrate films overlooked by this year’s Oscars.

“Come on, Beasts of No Nation?” said Nadhege Ptah in disbelief that the film did not receive a nomination. The local actress and filmmaker helped organize the Harlem Oscar Boycott along with three mutual friends, and had the idea to use her namesake, the Egyptian god, as the award. “We nominated the films that should have been nominated.”

Ptah and her fellow partygoers were among many around the country who spent yesterday celebrating the work of black actors and actresses instead of tuning into an awards ceremony that once again failed to include racial diversity. April Reign, the 45-year-old creator of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, joined her followers in live-tweeting the 1999 film The Wood. In Los Angeles, Dennis Dortch and Numa Perrier, the creators of digital network Black&SexyTV, hosted about 50 people in their home (with more watching online) for a film debate that included whether Boomerang is better than Coming to America, the greatest Denzel Washington performance, and the best movie soundtrack: Waiting to ExhaleNew Jack CityPurple Rain, or Love Jones.

“We wanted to not take a defeatist approach,” said Perrier. “If we only focused on the films shunned this year, it leaves a stain. We can talk about this until we are blue in the face, but what can we do, the people who know these films the most? We can support that feeling of celebration.” 

The Harlem event came about in a similar spirit. In late January, Christine Scott, co-founder of Cultsha and a freelance producer who has worked for HBO, met with Ptah at a tea shop in the neighborhood to discuss screening Ptah’s first film, Dodo Titi, a story about a Caribbean nanny who competes with the family’s dog for respect. The conversation eventually turned to #OscarsSoWhite, and the two women decided to work together to host a counter event. 

Scott and Ptah phoned their friend Laurent Delly for help. Delly, an engineer, organized online voting and contacted Gary Bimblick, a designer he met years ago at a neighborhood association meeting, to make the award. Bimblick, who has worked with the company that makes the Oscars, bought nine-inch museum replicas of the Egyptian god Ptah. In his home shop, Bimblick painted the figures gold, hollowed out the base, and added modeling clay and glass beads for weight. “That is the commentary on this thing,” said Bimblick. “Hidden gems that no one seems to want to notice and recognize.” He added engraved plates that read Best ActorBest Supporting ActorBest Director, and Best Film.

At the Shrine, where old album covers and music posters fill the walls and ceiling, the DJ played James Brown’s “The Payback” while voters debated their picks. Despite the event’s name, not everyone at the Harlem Oscar Boycott was wholeheartedly in favor of boycotting the Oscars. Some attendees admitted that they might watch the ceremony later that night, if only to hear Rock’s monologue. Harlem resident Christine Melton told me she disagreed with Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s decision to skip the Oscars ceremony, especially after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced changes to its membership rules. “Jada and Will should have said they are on the right track and shown up to say ‘We’re watching y’all,’” said Melton, who had cast her vote for Smith’s film Concussion.

The music and dancing were interrupted to announce the winners. Voters gathered around the stage and a quiet fell across the crowd as celebrity blogger Lisa Durden, who posted live clips from the event on social media, read the names of the first-ever Ptah awardees, whose publicists would soon be receiving nine-inch tall golden statues by mail: “Best Actor: Will Smith. Best Supporting Actor: Idris Elba. Best Director: Ryan Coogler for Creed. And Best Picture: Beasts of No Nation.”