Monday, November 9, 2020

Roger Ross Williams (WSUC ’87), 2020 CAS Alumni Achievement Award Honoree

Roger Ross Williams

On October 24, 2020, Dean Gene Jarrett presented the CAS Alumni Achievement Award to Roger Ross Williams (WSUC ’87). Williams is an award-winning director, producer, writer and the first African-American director to win an Academy Award ® with his short film "Music By Prudence."

Williams’ award winning work pushes the boundaries of culture and film. His documentaries include Academy Award ® nominated and Emmy Award winning "Life, Animated" as well as "God Loves Uganda," "American Jail," Emmy Award winning "The Apollo," and Emmy-nominated and Webby-winning VR experience "Traveling While Black." His production company One Story Up is currently in production on numerous doc features and series, including: a feature-length adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ "Between The World and Me," an untitled documentary about civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, and a short film series with Topic and First Look Media.

Currently Williams is in pre-production on his first narrative feature, "Cassandro," for Amazon studios.

Roger Ross Williams: his story continues

Read Williams’ inspiring acceptance speech:

Thank you, Dean Jarrett, Ms. Ivey and the College Alumni Association for this incredible honor. I was so thrilled to receive that iconic Tiffany blue box I received in the mail and marvel at this beautiful award. This award is going to have a really prominent place right here next to this iconic gold man [Roger’s Academy Award].

Nothing has shaped who I am or where I am in my career more than my experience at Washington Square University College (WSUC). NYU grounded me and educated me, and New York City was my campus. Studying Journalism under some of the greatest practicing journalists in the city where the greatest journalism happens was an amazing experience. It allowed me to be adjacent to institutions like The New York Times, PBS and the major television networks. And because of my experience at NYU, I ended up working at many of those networks. Because of NYU I had the opportunity to create documentaries for The New York Times, and one of my jobs out of college was as a researcher for ABC News working with people like Peter Jennings, Ted Koeppel and Barbara Walters. None of this would have been possible without the education and on the ground training I got at WSUC. 

Roger Ross Williams with award

My professors would send me out into the city with assignments – that’s where I formed a lot of my social justice values and political ideas. I covered political conventions in Madison Square Garden. I went backstage to interview Madonna as she launched her “Like A Virgin” tour at the Palladium. NYU provided me with incredible experiences. No other city, no other university could give you experiences like that. It helped shape my curiosity, my imagination and my drive.

Mid-way through my career I decided to become a documentary filmmaker. I quit my job at CNN at the time, and I headed to Africa to make my first film “Music by Prudence.” I had no idea that the journey I was on would lead me to the stage of the Oscars. That was overwhelming and exciting and I wouldn’t have made it there if it wasn’t for WSUC and what I learned there. I went on to make films that garnered a second Oscar nomination and multiple Emmys, and I wouldn’t have received those awards without what I learned at WSUC. 

Today I humbly serve as the Governor of the Documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences where I get to sit at the table with the most influential names in the entertainment industry. I was only the second African-American elected to the board of that great institution.

I run a thriving production company. I direct and produce documentaries for TV and film. The entertainment industry has not always been accessible for people who look like me. Now my mission is to open doors for people who look like me. I wouldn’t be able to do that, again, without the education and training I received at WSUC.

I was the first person in my family to go to college. There is a moment that is burned in my memory – the moment I received my acceptance letter from NYU. I opened it with my mom in the basement of our modest, little house in Pennsylvania and we jumped up and down and hugged each other. Things like that never happened to folks like us and it changed the course of my life. 

When I graduated years later, it was one of the greatest days of my life, because my mother who was a maid and had never graduated from high school, could see her son in his purple gown sitting in Washington Square Park – which, to all of us, was the center of the universe – and hear Senator Claiborne Pell, who created legislation that provides federal funds for low and middle income students like me and who inspired me to work in social justice and make a better world for people like my mother who never had the opportunities that I had. She was so proud of me that day and it is a day that I will never forget.

I have to dedicate this award to Betty Williams, my mother, who passed away a year ago, and everything she sacrificed for me to give me a better life and how she inspired me to serve humanity through my art. Mom, this is for you. Thank you so much, NYU, for this incredible honor. 

Find out more about Williams' projects here:

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