Milwaukee School Honors Black Cultural Icons With 'Alternative Academy Awards'

Feb 26, 2016

The 88th annual Academy Awards telecast airs Sunday, but this year's awards show has been criticized for its lack of diversity. A number of prominent black figures have called for a boycott of the event. Plenty of kids have taken notice too, including at a school on Milwaukee’s west side. So they decided to stage their own Oscars ceremony.

It's no uniforms on this day at Milwaukee College Prep’s 36th Street campus. Teachers, students and parents have come to school strutting their red-carpet best.

The P.E. teacher takes photos of students as they pose in front a gold backdrop. Office administrator Tanya Griffin is playing the part of the paparazzi.

"Who are you wearing?" Griffin asks parents, as they make their way down the red carpet – plastic runners taped to the linoleum floor.

Most are wearing black tie and ball gowns. So are the school staff. The awards crowd makes its way into the ballroom – the school auditorium.

(Top) P.E. teacher Mr. Marcou photographs parents and students as they walk down Milwaukee College Prep's red carpet. (Bottom left) Photos and student artwork dot the hallways lining the red carpet. (Bottom right) Music teacher Ms. Miller sings the Black National Anthem to kick off the festivities.
Credit Rachel Morello, Michelle Maternowski

 It’s a fun event designed to address a concerning topic: the fact that no black actors will be considered for this year’s Oscars.

Ninety-nine percent of the kids the Milwaukee College Prep network educates are African American.

They decided to celebrate black figures who won’t be part of Hollywood’s biggest night – and even reached back in time. One class honored now ninety-one year old actress Cicely Tyson for her 1978 portrayal of Harriet Tubman in A Woman Called Moses.

The “alternative Academy Awards” also honored musicians, including Stevie Wonder, Prince and Ray Charles.

The honorees -- all African Americans – each received a plastic gold statue with an “E” on top, for “Excellence.” Students also performed tributes to people they consider black cultural icons – ranging from President Barack Obama to actor Will Smith. One class sang the theme from Smith’s hit show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

The crowd laughed hardest when a fourth grader whipped off his suit coat and began playing air guitar to a song from Dreamgirls.

A student signs a medley from the musical Dreamgirls, honoring actor Jamie Foxx's performance in the movie adaptation.
Credit Michelle Maternowski

Fun aside, fourteen-year-old Lanaya Greer says the program gives her and her classmates a chance to honor people in pop culture who not only look like, but represent them. 

Credit Michelle Maternowski

"Every time black people get nominated for a role, it seems like it’s when we play a derogatory character. But when we are in movies that lift us higher like 'Straight Outta Compton and 'Creed,' we don’t exactly get recognition for that," Greer says. 

James Powell had 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."

Principal Kristen Foster says she wants all her students to feel confident, especially during black history month.

"We want our kids to know that they can be the change in Milwaukee, and their influence can influence other people," Foster explains. "Regardless of how old they are, they actually can change what’s happening and celebrate things that maybe aren’t celebrated like they should be."

(Clockwise from top left) K4 student Troy Brumfield recites the poem Hey Black Child; K5 students dance to the beat of a traditional African song; A Milwaukee College Prep family enjoys the show; Third grade boys toughen up for their section of Ray Charles' hit song, Hit the Road Jack.
Credit Michelle Maternowski