As the Oscars roll around, we are reminded of the age-old struggle of equitable visibility between Hollywood and Black folks. Each award season, we hold our breath to see which of our beloved actors will make the cut by mainstream Hollywood’s rubric, which often leads to a demoralization of our talent.
Our community has long been plagued by disparities relating to positive representations of our bodies and culture, especially given the tropes that depict us in ways that lack morality or through beauty standards that reject the glory of our God-given features. This experience is what inspired veteran photographer Carell Augustus to curate the Black Hollywood book project, which has since manifested into his newest book Black Hollywood: Reimagining Iconic Movie Moments.
His coffee table tome—which was produced by EBONY’s own publishing imprint—showcases Black actors as the lead role in Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster films. Augustus ‘book is not just a book for Black people; it is a book for all people who rarely see themselves in their totality on screen. The photo book includes a foreword by Forest Whittaker and afterword by Niecy Nash, who are among the ranks of Black Hollywood royalty. Ahead of the coffee book’s release later this fall, Augustus shared with EBONY his reason behind creating this powerful visual masterpiece and the importance of positive portrayals of Black people.
EBONY: What motivated you to curate this book and embark on the Black Hollywood book project?
Carell Augustus: I just wanted to try to change one person’s perspective about Black people and our beauty. That’s still my goal. It’s about positivity and again, imagery. A lot of the stuff that I focus on is almost like redoing what’s impacted me and my life. For example, the first time I saw a Black woman nude in a National Geographic image, I recognized that my brain had already started to make me feel and believe that Black women were not an acceptable standard. Since that time and the creation of this book, this is my way of trying to address that issue.
What were some your favorite movie moments that you were able to detail in your book?
There are so many to choose from! I particularly remember asking Vanessa Williams, the first Black Miss America, to participate for the Cleopatra shoot and she said “Am I going to be surrounded by young hot boys?” I knew then that it would be a great shoot and was one of my many favorites. I also enjoyed Omari Hardwick as James Bond and Blair Underwood in the iconic scene from The Shining.
At the end of Forest Whittaker’s forward he says “Let Carell’s photography transport you to a silver screen we never knew.”
What’s your personal period in Hollywood film history?
The 80s and 90s. I was really into in TV, I used to love picking up on different shooting techniques and style. I remember the Janet Jackson music videos that were being made. The 80s definitely had the biggest impact on me.
Even in 2022, there is such a disconnect when it comes to hiring and giving visibility to Black talent in Hollywood. Why do you believe this is still so challenging today?
I think the disconnect comes from the idea that Blackness is not a standard. Let’s start with that. When I first got to LA, after graduating photography school, I immediately went into the mode of “who do I need to shoot?” I need to shoot the Cameron Diaz and Julia Roberts types as I believed that shooting them was going to make me stand out in the crowd. I thought that I needed to focus on white girls because that is what the standard was and what I thought would make my portfolio viable.
Somewhere along the line, I realized that was absolutely crazy. I love Black people. I love the tones and the shapes that we come in. I decided that I needed to do something to focus on the beauty of us, since nobody else would.
So, I think it starts with Blackness not being a standard. This is changing, slowly, but surely—even though it’s started to dissipate from when the world cared about Black Lives Matter. During the Black Lives Matter movement, everybody wanted a Black photographer or a Black crew. Now it’s reverted back to what it was before which is “we really don’t have time to go out and seek Black artists like we kept saying we would do.” So the way I see it is if I don’t put my own people on, I can’t wait for somebody else to do it.
I also recognize that Blackness makes people uncomfortable, but that’s not up to me or to us, who are made to feel uncomfortable all the time. We all get what that feels like, but the powers that be have to learn to get with it.
There are a lot of cult-classic films within our culture that do not get the same acclaim as films featuring predominately white actors. What was your creative process in paralleling mainstream American cult-classic films with Black Hollywood stars?
It’s about creating a space. There have been so many great movies made over time that lack melanated faces and it makes you wonder “what if that was actually an opportunity afforded to Black actors?”
So many amazing people showed up and showed out for me with for this book. I’m so grateful for all the people that saw the vision and believed that my concept was worth their time. With this project and paralleling the actors the way that I did, I really wanted to take a moment and just uplift our community, particularly Black kids, who I know for a fact don’t see themselves in diverse ways. It’s all about imagery. It’s all about how we’ve been made to believe and see ourselves. When you don’t see yourself in a good light, you don’t feel like you’re good in a way. In general, it was important that I showed varying depictions of Black dynamics and add to the canon of positive Black imagery.