Seeing Quincy Jones’ name listed as a composer for the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night forever changed Russell Williams II’s world. “I didn’t think anyone with a permanent tan was behind the camera,” he told The Root. The then-15-year-old, who never considered a film career, had an epiphany: He didn’t have to be in front of the camera in order to be a part of the movie business. And it’s good that things happened this way, because Williams — a voting member of the academy — has won two Academy Awards for sound mixing and knows a lot about the industry.
Williams, who has a news and documentary background, first came to Hollywood in 1979. He worked on television shows, but his first big break came with Field of Dreams, which was followed by Glory and then Dances With Wolves. In 1990 and 1991, he won Oscars for best sound for Glory and Dances With Wolves. Williams and his mentor Willie D. Burton (Bird, Dreamgirls) are the only African Americans to be nominated and win Oscars for best sound.
In 2002, while still hot in Hollywood, Williams abandoned Los Angeles’ sunny weather for his native Washington, D.C., to care for his ailing father and work as Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at his alma mater, American University, where he’s teaching a new crop of future filmmakers and documentarians.
Williams, also a two-time Primetime Emmy winner, took time between classes to discuss with The Root how winning Oscars changed his career, why there aren’t more “positive” Black movies and the purpose the Oscars serve for Black nominees.