Every time Stephan James and Shamier Anderson step on a red carpet, or on stage to accept an award, or gleefully announce on social media that they’ve booked another massive gig, the city of Toronto beams. It’s not just because James and Anderson walk through Hollywood side by side, reppin’ their hometown Scarborough, Ontario every chance they can, or how the brothers’ mutual respect, familial admiration, friendship and humility shine through every public appearance in the most Canadian way. It’s also the fact that they carry a responsibility they shouldn’t have to: The weight of changing the country’s arts and entertainment industry for the next generation of Black talent. And the way they’ve met this duty — one their white peers get to opt out of — with urgency and grace is deserving of all the national pride.
Their latest effort to save the industry from its exclusionary gatekeepers is a groundbreaking one: James and Anderson are building The Black Academy, a first-of-its-kind national organization which hopes to “inspire both Anglophone and Francophone Black talent across the country” and tackle the ways in which the industry overlooks Black creators.
Since 2016, James, 26, and Anderson, 29, have been pushing for better opportunities for Black artists in Canada with their organization B.L.A.C.K (Building a Legacy in Acting, Cinema and Knowledge), which aims to, “combat systemic racism while honoring, celebrating, and inspiring Black talent in Canada” and holds a glitzy, and easily the Blackest, party at the Toronto International Film Festival every year. As they’ve built B.L.A.C.K, both James and Anderson have steadily been rising in Hollywood.
Over Zoom (Anderson from Toronto and James from Los Angeles), the brothers tell R29Unbothered that now is the time to act on the momentum of their skyrocketing careers — James, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his work in Homecoming opposite Julia Roberts, has some major projects on the way, and Anderson, who has starred alongside heavyweights Nicole Kidman and Halle Berry, also has a slew of upcoming high-profile projects, including a Spike Lee joint and his first foray into writing and producing with Super High— and the current cultural moment. In the midst of a racial reckoning and coming off a year that saw an unprecedented spotlight on Canadian TV with Schitt’s Creek’s historic Emmys sweep, the pair hopes to keep that energy going for Black-led projects. Their mindset: If not them, who?
“To be something, you got to be able to see it. Right?” James asks out loud to no one in particular. “There’s a reason why we have The Weeknd — because Drake showed us that it was possible. I think that it’s infectious when you’re able to see people that come from where you come from do these things.” For James, that person was his big brother. As a kid, James would attend Anderson’s theater productions at Scarborough’s Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts. James recalls watching in awe as Shamier performed. “My 14-year-old self was just in complete bliss that that was even possible.”
We’re Black men. We were born Black. We’ve experienced the things that the media is now highlighting today. When the TV is turned off, these are things that we live with. Understanding that is why we’re building The Black Academy.
With The Black Academy— which kicks off with funding from the Canada Media Fund (CMF) and a board of directors that reads like a who’s who of Black Canadian powerhouses across business, arts, and culture— James and Anderson hope to pass that inspiration on to young Black talent to believe in the possibility of their own dreams.
Here, James and Anderson talk more about their goals for The Black Academy, their brotherly rivalry and, as a treat, they tell us what they really think of your thirst tweets.
Refinery29: Let’s start with the gaps in the Canadian industry when it comes to Black representation. What are they?
Stephan James: I’ll tell you a little story as an example. Coming up in this business, for Shamier and I to be able to get into the union, we would only need three [acting] credits. Meanwhile, our white counterparts would need six credits to enter the union. And what that tells me is, innately, we have half the opportunities of our white counterparts. Shamier and I discuss this ratio often and the discrepancy between [white and Black] representation on screen. That is why we created B.L.A.C.K. We recognized this gap in being able to create a star system that grades, highlights, and ultimately gives Black artists an opportunity to grow and further their careers on a global level. We recognized the power of having people see themselves on stages and on screens. The Black Academy really is a culmination of what we already started with B.L.A.C.K and a response to this grand national call to end systemic racism. With The Black Academy we want to create a place where we can tackle all those ideals. For every gap that was once open, we want to fill it with this academy.
You’ve both been out here doing this work long before 2020 when it became trendy. So, Shamier, break down how The Black Academy is an extension of the work you’ve already been doing.
Shamier Anderson: I love that you referenced the fact that we’ve been doing this far before 2020. There’s a term that we have in Scarborough, when someone comes out of nowhere, we say “it’s a little suspect.” Everybody’s well-intentioned. And everyone may mean well, but in 2020, people have been a little suspect. We are coming from a place where you don’t choose your lane of resistance. Stephan and I realize that. We’re Black men. We were born Black. We’ve experienced the things that the media is now highlighting today. When the TV is turned off, these are things that we live with. Understanding that is why we’re building The Black Academy.
Those are admirable but lofty goals. How do you plan to fix the industry?
SA: I think it is important to understand what our American counterparts have done with the NAACP Awards, Soul Train Awards, and the BET Awards, and the importance of showing Black excellence and controlling our narrative, as opposed to waiting for our white counterparts to recognize us. I think back to when Stephan got this letter [to go to the White House] to speak about his work as John [Lewis in Selma]. It blew us away. Michelle and Barack Obama invited Stephan to their home directly. That was an amazing moment. But it also made us reflect on being Canadians playing these American roles — which we’re so grateful to be playing — but it’s important that we come back home and say that we need these things here, too. We need programs, academies, and award shows. We need to honor and amplify our voices here.
Maybe we won’t be able to change it right now or in this lifetime, but at least we can be that conduit and start laying down the seeds and building the infrastructures. This is going to go beyond a hashtag; beyond a black square. We personally feel that systemic change is the best way. We have to build economic change.
Last year I wrote about what people were calling a Canadian TV renaissance with shows like Schitt’s Creek, Workin Moms, Letterkenny and how white all those shows are. Then, this year, we watched Schitt’s Creek win so many Emmys and people said it was a big win for Canadian TV. But I worried it was a big win for only a certain kind of Canadian TV. What has it been like as Black Canadians to watch which shows get greenlit and garner the most acclaim?
SA: I mean, congratulations to the Schitt’s Creek cast and what [Eugene and Dan Levy] have done is phenomenal. We can use that spotlight they put on Canada now to catapult other stories, specifically Black stories. The problem is not a lack of Black talent. It’s a lack of institutions shining a light on those individuals. Stephan and I just like to go against the grain. I think it’s important to stress that we can’t wait for the white man to create these opportunities for us.
SJ: I’ll add that we’re proud of Schitt’s Creek and all their success, but now it’s on us in Canada to recognize that we’ve got eyes on us. What are we going to do? How are we going to take advantage of this moment in time? The Black Academy is really just a small piece of that work.
Stephan, when I spoke to writer and producer Floyd Kane, who you’ve worked with in the past, for that Canadian TV piece, he said that at the beginning of your career if you were white you would have gotten way more opportunities in Canada. Do you agree with that?
SJ: I mean, look, if I was 7′ 2″, I’d be playing basketball in the NBA. I don’t really know the answer to those questions. But at the end of the day, when I look at the work that I’ve done, what’s important to me is when everyone wants to say, “Oh, he’s the first who’s been able to do these sorts of things,” that I don’t want to be the last. When I was on stage at the Canadian Screen Awards a few years ago accepting the Radius award, as blissful as that moment was, I couldn’t help but think, Man, I’m probably one of a handful — if that — of Black individuals that are going to step on the stage tonight. That didn’t sit well with me. It didn’t sit well with my brother. I’m humbled by the opportunities that I’ve been able to get in my career, but what’s important to me is being able to create more opportunities so that the barriers that I had to jump through getting out of Canada and garnering a certain amount of success in the United States aren’t there anymore. We want to stop that perpetual loop for other artists or other individuals coming out of this city and out of this country who are building incredible things.
Kids growing up in Scarborough who look like you probably don’t think there is a path for them in Canadian film and TV because you are the examples they have and you both have had to go to the States. How is The Black Academy going to try to refocus the pipeline to keep Black talent in Canada?
SA: We understand the landscape of this business. We understand that Fox, Universal, and all the major studios are American-based. But the reality is that we can build careers at home. It is possible to do that. In music, we know the Drakes, the Weeknds, the Biebers, etc. but to see a guy like Dan Levy, who’s directly in our lane and go, Man, he put pen to paper and he made it happen, it’s reassuring. We may not be afforded the same resources or the same family lineage that he has, but I think these types of governing bodies [like The Black Academy] can really help individuals in the arts in the [film and TV] sector.
When Stephan and I are in conversations with the government or in producer rooms in Canada, and we’re getting resistance, we always counter with, “If we’re having a hard time convincing you, I can’t imagine a young little brown boy in Jane and Finch who doesn’t have the same access.” It’s imperative that we take this moment of success — because it is a moment — and try to capitalize on it in a positive way. That means holding our white counterparts accountable beyond the black squares and beyond the in-the-moment donation just for virtue signaling. I’m not hating on the money. Let’s take the money, but it needs permanence. This is just the beginning. Stephan and I are young guys and we don’t have all the answers. We’re a couple of guys from Scarborough. We know something, but we don’t know everything. And we really are imploring and leaning on our brothers and sisters in the Black community, our board of directors, and everybody else to help spread the message and build this coalition to impact change.
As blissful as that moment was, I couldn’t help but think, ‘Man, I’m probably one of a handful — if that — of Black individuals that are going to step on the stage tonight.’ That didn’t sit well with me. It didn’t sit well with my brother.
Stephan James on accepting the Radius Award at
the CANADIAn Screen Awards
SJ: It’s not lost on us how large this initiative is and how much the undertaking will be. But we’re confident in the people that we are surrounding ourselves with on the board — whether that’s Wes Hall, a Bay Street personality who’s done great work with the BlackNorth Initiative, or Alica Hall, who’s doing great work in the community as the Director of the Nia Centre For Arts at the grassroots level, or Vanessa Craft, who I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with in the past with ELLE [Canada] Magazine, and now in her position at TikTok, who is always a big voice for change and representation in the Black community. Since being Black is not a monolithic experience, we wanted to represent that on our board.
It’s a strong alliance for sure. It’s also beautiful that you have each other to lean on throughout your careers. You’re brothers, you’re best friends. But you also have the same job. There’s got to be some rivalry, right?
SA: The obvious answer is yeah, there is. But the reality is, we came from the mud. You know? So, to be able to see your relative win and keep the money in the family is beautiful. Of course, we are on the street for the same job sometimes. And yes, Stephan books all of them [laughs]. Yes, he gets nominated for all of them. But hey, better him than somebody else. You want to know why? Because I get to be the plus one. Either way, I feel like I’m winning. The difference is I don’t have to do the work. He has to put on all these hats and characters, and I get to enjoy the free booze and the free red carpets and meet Julia Roberts up close and personal. It’s a win-win, so I’m not too concerned.
OK, I need to end on something joyful because I’m all about Black joy. If you search “Stephan James and Shamier Anderson” on Twitter, there are just a lot of thirsty tweets. Out of respect for you both, I can’t read some of them out loud but…
SJ: Kathleen, read them. The people want to know and I’m not going to check, so read them. Let’s hear it.
SA: Shout them out too, let’s give them their flowers.
Here’s a tame one: “Today I learned that Shamier Anderson and Stephan James are brothers and help, I have a crush on them both. What do I do now?” That’s from Lauren. Another: “Stephan James and Shamier Anderson are real-life brothers. I’d like to … [redacted] Whew, never mind.” That’s from Ashley.
SA: [laughs] Those were good.
Let’s talk about the heartthrob aspect of all of this. We know who the objects of affection or “internet boyfriends” in this industry usually are and I think it’s important that you’re both out there. How do you feel about being thirsted after?
SJ: Shamier really takes that mantle on way more than I could possibly. But I don’t know, it’s flattering to be recognized in that way. Look, I thank my parents.
SA: Exactly what Stephan said. It’s flattering, it’s sweet and … thanks Mama.
[Both men are physically recoiling in laughter and embarrassment]
I think it helps that you both have great style. I know you’re very diplomatic about each other, but who has better style?
SJ: I’m not even going to answer this question. It’s a rhetorical question, right? Next question.
Why? Because you have better style?
SJ: Look, I’m not saying yes, I’m not saying no.
SA: There’s a saying that the loudest person in the room is usually … [laughs]. But we won’t go there, it’s all good.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
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