Billy Dee Williams proved to be the man of the hour as he received the Hollywood Legacy Award at the 2018 ABFF Honors, presented by the American Black Film Festival, Sunday night at the Beverly Hilton. His role in the original “Star Wars” trilogy was given special mention in a video tribute, where the actor noted how director George Lucas cast him after receiving “a lot of flack” for making a big, black figure (Darth Vader) the villain of the first film.
“I thought, I want to make (Lando Calrissian) bigger than life. I want to make him into a hero, kind of a charming, wonderful individual,” Williams recalled in the clip, which also included kind words from Harrison Ford.
“Being an African-American actor in the 1960s through the 2000s looks different each and every decade,” Williams added on stage while accepting his prize. “I can tell you that my journey has not always been smooth, but ultimately a positive one that went the right direction. And if on that journey, I helped pave just a little bit of the way for black talent — actors, writers, directors, producers and crew members — that’ll have more opportunities today compared to yesterday, then I can say that has been the greatest role of my lifetime.”
The 80-year-old, who also called attention to his 60 years in showbiz, continued, stating that “we still have work to do” when it comes to industry inclusion. The thesp ended his speech in tears as he thanked the festival for its honor.
Industry Visionary Award recipient Ava DuVernay also saluted Williams for his “Star Wars” role that, she said, broke “boundaries that no one even thought could be broken.” The “A Wrinkle in Time” director said, “For me, especially as I’m moving into this space with sci-fi, he was the first vision of black masculinity in a sci-fi character with Lando in ‘Star Wars.'”
On the carpet, “Girls Trip” helmer Malcolm D. Lee had some ideas of how to diversify the franchise, which has had 96% of its writers and directors be white men over its 41-year history.
“If someone wanted to talk to me about it, I wouldn’t say no,” Lee posited. “There’s plenty of people who can do it, F. Gary Gray, Steve McQueen, obviously Ryan Coogler. There’s a lot of talent out there now.”
The evening also gave special honors to the cast of “Martin,” who were introduced by one of the series’ most memorable guest stars, Snoop Dogg. Martin Lawrence, who was joined by stars Tisha Campbell, Carl Anthony Payne II, and Tichina Arnold on stage, took time to recognize his late “Martin” co-star, Thomas Mikal Ford.
“I know y’all wanna know about the #reboot, but for us the most important thing is the #reconnection,” Campbell told the crowd. Arnold, however, wasn’t as tight-lipped with reporters on the subject. The actress said that they have some ideas to update the ’90s series, and hope to gain a lineup of special guests that were in the original — namely Tracy Morgan.
“I’ll kick his ass (if he doesn’t come back),” Arnold quipped.
Omari Hardwick received the Distinguished ABFF Alumni Award and Tiffany Haddish was given the Rising Star Award at the ceremony, which also handed out competitive trophies to best TV comedy winners “Black-ish and “Insecure,” best TV drama “Queen Sugar,” and movie of the year “Get Out.” During the gala, American Black Film Festival founder Jeff Friday also encouraged guests to attend the 22nd annual fest, which returns to Miami, Florida June 13-17.