“The category is ‘stand in your truth,'” Emmy winner Billy Porter said as he presented to his “Pose” comrades at the 13th annual Essence Black Women in Hollywood Awards on Thursday afternoon.
Co-executive producer Janet Mock, and stars MJ Rodriguez, Angelica Ross and Hailie Sahar took the stage, acknowledging the importance of the moment — that a cast of black trans and gender non-conforming people could be honored at a Hollywood event, especially as the average life expectancy of black trans women currently stands at 35 years old. As Porter told Variety on the black carpet before the event and repeated on stage, “We’re not free until we’re all free.”
“For 50 years, Essence has recognized us in a culture that overlooks people like us,” Mock said onstage. “I hope our show provides a mirror to black girls everywhere, letting them know they’re worthy.”
Niecy Nash, Melina Matsoukas and Lashana Lynch rounded out the list of honorees at the annual celebration of black womanhood. And though their outfits and the hairstyles the women displayed onstage were marvelous, the real beauty of the event shined through the honorees’ humble attitudes as they accepted their awards, each using their moment to honor all mothers and women attending the event.
Master of ceremonies Eve opened the event with a brief moment of silence in honor of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna (Bryant and his daughter died on Jan. 26 in a helicopter crash along with seven others) before handing the mic to four-time Emmy winner Alfre Woodard.
“Oh, to be young, gifted and black,” Woodard said, citing Nina Simone, as she introduced Lynch. The “No Time to Die” star gracefully accepted her award though she admitted, “My words are in my big toe right now,” (which they probably were as she wasn’t reading a speech from the teleprompter as others did). But as the words eventually made their way to her mouth, she spoke only to her mother.
Lynch reflected on her upbringing with her mother, who raised her and her siblings as a single parent in a Jamaican household, and moved on to discuss how those moments came to shape her character in “Captain Marvel.” “In that moment, all your sacrifices ran through my veins,” she said. “If I can be half the woman you are, I know that I’ve succeeded.”
She choked up as she closed her speech, saying, “The true essence of humanity lies in the sacrifice of black women.”
Lynch’s speech bought the audience to tears, with many in the crowd rising from their seats to offer her a standing ovation. Following the hard-to-top act, Issa Rae took the stage to introduce Matsoukas. Famous for her hilarious speeches (and sometimes raps), Rae comedically shared a story about getting food poisoning from Starbucks, which left the crowd in stitches.
The “Queen & Slim” director took the stage and after saying she refused to let the “daily onslaught of colonization” take away her joy, used her acceptance speech to highlight what brings her joy.
“I’ve realized what brings me joy is not only the battle, because, boy do I love disrupting their s—,” she said before telling the crowd the answer: honoring those who help and uplift her. Matsoukas first thanked her mother, who she says not only “prepared her to be the only one in the room,” but also taught her “how to link arms and bring her sisters with her.” She then went on to thank longtime collaborator Beyonce, her “Queen & Slim” screenwriter Lena Waithe and Rae.
Kerry Washington shared a personal anecdote from her baby shower as she presented a tribute to the late legendary actress Diahann Carroll. Carroll died on Oct. 4, 2019, after a lengthy battle with breast cancer. “There would be no Olivia Pope without Julia or Dominique Deveraux, and there would be no Kerry Washington without Diahann Carroll,” she said.
A tribute video that followed, highlighting Carroll’s on-screen roles from “Julia” and “Claudine,” to “A Different World” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” served to illustrate and emphasize one of Carroll’s quotes: “The world is a better place because of me, an American black woman.”
Ava DuVernay presented her “When They See Us” star Nash with the vanguard award, sponsored by Ford. “If this dress falls apart, you’re welcome,” Nash joked as she took the stage. While the “Claws” star also thanked her mother in her speech, she used the rest of her time to give a testimony about how choosing herself helped her to get to that moment on stage.
“Heavy is the head that wears the crown of change,” Nash said. She spoke about breaking generational curses and how she learned through her own divorces and choices to put herself first, leading to her eventual success (which includes three Emmy nominations and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame). “You will always be the thing. You get up every day and you choose yourself and you teach your children how to choose yourself.”