Canadian actors, activists, and brothers Stephan James and Shamier Anderson are having a momentous 2020 – and the country’s arts and culture sector is set to reap the benefits.
In May, James headlined the second season of Amazon Prime Video’s acclaimed drama Homecoming, while a few months later Anderson popped up at TIFF alongside Halle Berry in the actress’s buzzy directorial debut Bruised. In the fall, the pair joined the board of directors for the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, which is in the midst of rebuilding itself to prioritize diversity and inclusion. And on Thursday, James and Anderson launched The Black Academy, a new organization dedicated to “honouring, celebrating, and showcasing established and emerging Black talent” in Canada.
“This is about giving back the resources that Stephan and I were afforded while coming up in the business,” Anderson said in an interview with The Globe. “Knowing the impact we want to make, we feel it’s important to build an infrastructure for Black excellence,”
The Black Academy, which will focus on both English- and French-speaking Black talent, will be a division of the brothers’ B.L.A.C.K. (Building a Legacy in Acting, Cinema + Knowledge) Canada, a not-for-profit group that the Scarborough-raised siblings founded in 2016. Already set to join The Black Academy’s board of directors are TikTok Canada’s Vanessa Craft, Nia Centre for the Arts executive director Alica Hall, Bay Street mainstay Wes Hall, film and television producer Jennifer Holness of the newly formed Black Screen Office, entertainment lawyer Divya Shahani, and Reelworld Film Festival founder Tonya Williams.
“It was important to assemble a group of individuals reflective of our goals, which is highlighting Black excellence within a variety of sectors,” says James, whose big-screen credits include last year’s Chadwick Boseman thriller 21 Bridges and his starring role in Barry Jenkins’ 2018 Oscar-winning drama If Beale Street Could Talk.
The Black Academy plans to liaise with both the public and private sectors to “celebrate and elevate Black talent” through the presentation of awards, educational programming, panel discussions and other initiatives. The Canada Media Fund, through its Black and People of Colour (BPOC) Sector Development initiative, is listed as The Black Academy’s first funder, though James and Anderson did not provide specific funding figures.
“It’s a significant amount, but a drop in the bucket respectfully,” says Anderson, who will next be seen in Netflix’s sci-fi thriller Stowaway. “We’re at the fundraising stage right now, so we need support from the government and corporate Canada. We need people to stand not behind us, but next to us. This is long-lasting change, not just posting a black square on social media.”
The brothers’ initiative, which launches online at blackisnow.com, comes after the development of several new programs across the Canadian arts landscape aimed at boosting inclusion and representation. In addition to the Academy’s myriad initiatives, including a “talent development initiative” focused on mid-career creatives, Telefilm this August committed $100,000 toward the creation of the Black Screen Office, and Bell Media in July partnered with the grassroots organization BIPOC TV & Film to increase employment of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour in the domestic media industry.
“The landscape is a beautiful place right now. There is an awareness and understanding and an urge for change,” says Anderson. “But we have to find that interconnective tissue to keep accelerating the same mission. We’ve seen the BET Awards and the Soul Train Awards in the States, but in Canada we don’t have anything like that. It’s important that we start this now.”
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