For one day, kids at Milwaukee College Prep’s 36th Street campus aren’t wearing their uniforms. Instead, they’re decked out in suits and dresses for the first-ever Academy Awards of Excellence.
Office administrator, Tanya Griffin, plays paparazzi by snapping pictures of students, parents and teachers as they step and repeat in front of a gold backdrop.
“Who are you wearing?” Griffin asks parents as they make their way down the red carpet — plastic runners taped to the linoleum floor.
As the paparazzi clears, the awards crowd makes its way into the ballroom, the school auditorium, for the show.
The 88th annual Academy Awards airs tonight and, again, the awards are being criticized for lacking diversity. That’s why the kids at this school, where ninety-nine percent of the student body is African-American, decided to stage their own Oscars ceremony.
They’re giving the Academy Award of Excellence to some black members of Hollywood, past and present, who didn’t get Oscar nominations, but arguably should have.
Third graders nod to Will Smith and perform a montage of scenes from his most famous movies including last year’s Concussion.
“Every time black people get nominated for a role, it seems like it’s when we play a derogatory character,” says 14-year-old student Lanaya Greer. “But when we are in movies that lift us higher like Straight Outta Compton and Creed, we don’t exactly get recognition for that.”
Lanaya says the program gives her and her classmates a chance to pay tribute to people in pop culture who not only look like them, but also represent them.
But it’s not just about the Oscars. Students also perform as famous African-Americans in history, like poet Langston Hughes, and figures of today, like President Barack Obama, giving acceptances speeches highlighting their contributions to black culture in America.
One class honors ninety-one year old actress Cicely Tyson for her 1978 portrayal of Harriet Tubman in A Woman Called Moses, and the honorees in every category receive a gold plastic statue with an “E” on top, for “Excellence.”
James Powell has two grandsons and three great-nieces performing in the program. He says he’d heard about the Oscars controversy and is proud of the school for addressing the situation.
“It helps with our heritage,” Powell says. “Not only in the homes are we trying to teach our black heritage, but it is starting to develop and show up here in the schools too, and that’s a good thing.”
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