Essence hosted its ninth annual Black Women in Hollywood awards luncheon Thursday at the Beverly Wilshire, where celebrities including Zendaya, Chris Rock, Keke Palmer and Nick Cannon gathered to celebrate the impact of black women in entertainment.
“The idea that we gather in this space to speak each other’s names in praise and raise each other up in celebration, that’s a divine moment,” said Oprah Winfrey, who’s televising the awards event on Saturday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on the OWN Network. She continued, “As my friend and prolific storyteller, Ava DuVernay, who’s not here today because she’s shooting a new series for OWN, says, ‘When black women are together, a sacred space can be conjured.’ So I say, let the conjuring begin.”
Winfrey referenced Essence’s 2013 Fierce and Fearless Award recipient Gabrielle Union, citing the actress’s acceptance speech as influential in creating a dialogue about inclusion. “(Her speech) helped start the conversation — a conversation that opened the doors for us to create more inclusion, more connection and more opportunities with and for each other,” Winfrey said.
Thais Francis, who won Essence’s 2016 short film contest, accepted the Discover Award. An up-and-coming screenwriter and actress, Francis was being honored for “Late Expectations,” her first screenplay, about a young woman leading a double life.
“I’m deeply appreciative to Essence and to the judges for creating a platform of visibility,” Francis said. “I think a lot of us in this audience know the importance of visibility, especially during a time in society, in the world, in an industry that’s telling us we’re invisible.”
Also being honored was entertainment lawyer Nina Shaw, whose clients include Cannon, Lupita Nyong’o, Ava DuVernay, Laurence Fishburne, Jamie Foxx and F. Gary Gray.
“The truth is, there should be a lot more of us, women and people of color, as successful representatives, heads of studios and presidents of networks. We know this, so let’s turn our focus to solutions,” said Shaw, who was presented with Essence’s Lincoln Power Award by Cannon and ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey. “Ultimately, the institutions must change. Because until our business conversations are inclusive, real change will continue to elude us.”
“Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes presented Essence’s Legend Award to director-actress Debbie Allen.
“Most of the women in this room are able to act, dance, write, direct and produce freely, because they do so within the safety of the canyon that Debbie, through sheer determination and serial talent, has cut in the unwelcoming environmental stone that we call the American artistic community,” Rhimes said before welcoming Allen to the stage.
In addition to directing episodes of “Scandal,” “Empire” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” Allen has earned 19 Emmy nominations — more than any other African-American. Currently, she’s an executive producer and director on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“Perception is a learned commodity,” Allen said while accepting her award. “You think you’re standing on a planet that is solid; it’s moving fast through time and space. The world is dancing, the universe is dancing — that’s why I came out dancing,” she joked.
Essence’s fourth and final honoree was “Black-ish” actress Tracee Ellis Ross, who was presented with the Fierce and Fearless Award by Zendaya and her sister, Rhonda Ross.