Sheryl Lee Ralph has delivered one rousing acceptance speech after another, all awards season long.
But the newly crowned Emmy, Critics Choice and Golden Globe-winner saved something special for Essence’s 16th annual Black Women in Hollywood luncheon on Thursday afternoon.
Presented the award by her “Abbott Elementary” co-star and creator — and 2022 Essence Black Women in Hollywood honoree — Quinta Brunson, Ralph whipped the audience into a frenzy with a 13-minute speech that ranged from a subdued, yet soul-stirring rendition of “Endangered Species” to an impassioned rallying cry to remember who paved the way for where Black women in the industry have come from and where we’re going.
“I have joy. I have happiness. I have love that I get to share with all of you. Just looking at you, and looking at you, I tell you this all the time,” she said, turning briefly to Brunson.
“The fight to get all of you here, looking the way you look, celebrating you in the positions that you are doing what you are doing, it was some backbreaking work,” she continued as the audience, assembled in the ballroom of the Fairmont Century City, erupted in applause. “It was some spirit-breaking work. It was hard, but generations held on.”
With no music attempting to play her off stage, the guests — made up mostly of Black women actors, filmmakers, publicists, executives and journalists (like Yara Shahidi, Chinonye Chukwu, Marsai Martin, Dominique Fishback, Lena Waithe, Teyana Taylor, Ruth E. Carter, Vivica A. Fox, Niecy Nash-Betts, Tia and Tamera Mowry and Amazon’s Latasha Gillespie, with a few men including emcee Boris Kodjoe, Larenz Tate and presenters Ryan Coogler and Daniel Kaluuya) — listened with rapt attention.
“Rosalind Cash got blackballed from the industry because she dared to wear her natural hair in dreadlocks. You don’t remember Rosalind Cash — great actress. Not good. Great,” Ralph continued. She also evoked Broadway star Virginia Capers, another Black woman whose talent was underserved by Hollywood. When they first met, Ralph recalls Capers looking at her and saying, “That is what the future looks like.’”
Today, Ralph sits on the set of “Abbott Elementary” looking at Brunson, her “work child,” and can see Capers’ prophecy come true. “I sit there and I think, ‘Look what the future done wrought,’” Ralph said.
With Ralph honored alongside fellow actors Danielle Deadwyler (“Till,” “From Scratch”) and Dominique Thorne (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”), Freeform and the Onyx Collective president Tara Duncan and “The Woman King” filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood, the lineup as a whole represents the past, present and future for Black women in the business.
All have taken the stage at one awards ceremony or another, sharing powerful prose about their craft. But as each woman laid bare their stories of navigating Hollywood as a Black woman, specifically, their candid nature reaffirmed that there’s no awards ceremony quite like this one. This room is an opportunity to get real. To sit in sisterhood. To be heard by those who understand so intimately that no explanation is necessary.
“There’s nothing like a compliment from another Black woman, right?” Essence VP of content and executive editor Danielle Cadet told Variety on the white carpet ahead of the event’s start.
“There’s something about being in a room of Black women telling each other ‘You did a good job,’” Cadet said. “Sometimes we’re so down on ourselves, we are our own worst critics and a Black woman can lift you up out of that in a way that, quite frankly, no one else can do.”
Thorne concurred. “So much of this moment is about genuinely and authentically taking the time to reflect on the steps that we’re taking to get here,” she told Variety before taking the stage. “And to be able to look up from that walk and now see the incredible people that I’m standing in the company with, in the same room with, it’s a testament to the impact that Black women have been able to make in the film and television space. It’s really inspiring.”
So when Thorne began her acceptance speech with a prayer to God, asking for guidance within her life and career, the crowd murmured “Yes,” “Woo” and “Amen” right back, as if the tables were church pews.
“I do know that 25 years is beyond sufficient time to know that this world is overly eager to forget, ignore, to overlook, to endanger, to misuse, misunderstand and otherwise brutalize the Black woman,” Thorne declared. “Yet in that same world, Essence stands and has stood proud and immovable in its goal to amplify our truths.”
It’s why everyone burst into knowing applause when Duncan declared, “The truth is, these jobs behind the scenes are hard. I’m the daughter of a teacher and the daughter of a domestic worker, I know what a real job and this is real work. And there’s been moments where I doubted my own ability and I doubted the work that I’m doing had been enough.”
In those moments, she said, its a text from one of her fellow C-suite trailblazers, Universal Television president Pearlena Igbokwe or a news break about Warner Bros. Television chair Channing Dungey that get her through.
It’s why the room buzzed with raucous laughter when Deadwyler revealed her handwritten remarks were “Notes on Coming Into Multiple Literacies for the Multi-Literate Black Woman” or “A Survivor’s Guide to the Hellish Hazing of Awards Season when the Hunger for Dry Chicken is Enuff.”
“Coming from the southern space where sometimes actors aren’t necessarily loudly supported in a certain kind of way, which we’ve talked about thoroughly in various forms of media, you don’t know how to navigate these spaces,” said Deadwyler, shouting out her friend and fellow Atlanta-bred actor Gail Bean as someone who’d get it.
Deadwyler also spoke of a moment she had at another awards ceremony. “Sheryl Lee Ralph stopped me in my tracks at an awards show, and she said, ‘You!,’ and I knew immediately to abide. She put her pristinely painted forehead on my perfectly forehead and spoke to truth… I don’t remember what she said, but I do know that she saw a babe in the woods and, skin to skin, calmed the mind.”
It’s why when Viola Davis presented to her “Woman King” director Gina Prince-Bythewood, she praised the filmmaker’s warrior spirit, carrying the weight of the production on her back while filming for five months in the African jungle, and then again over the course of a challenging award season.
“It has been the honor of my life to stand beside you,” Davis told Prince-Bythewood as she detailed the obstacles in their path in an impassioned speech.
“Whatever anyone will say about this movie, it is effective. And we caught a lot of help because it’s driven by Black women,” she said, as the room burst into applause. “Let me say that again. We caught a lot of hell because it was driven by Black women. And so what you need is a warrior spirit, with Black female-driven narratives. You need someone with skill set. You need someone with vision, you need someone with purpose and you need someone who will pick up that proverbial sword and say, ‘I know you didn’t think this is something you needed, but guess what.’”
With her turn at the mic, Prince-Bythewood addressed the discourse that surrounded “The Woman King,” as detractors challenged the film’s narrative as “historically inaccurate” before the historical epic hit No.1 in theaters and later on Netflix.
“It’s fed by the historically inaccurate narratives written by colonizers with an incentive to dehumanize us,” Prince-Bythewood said of the critiques of “The Woman King’s” narrative about the Dahomey Kingdom.
“So many of us are taught that the tenants of our history are enslavement, victimization and savagery. Our connection to our true past has been cut off by the loop,” she added, quoting novelist Chinua Achebe, who wrote, “Until the lion learns to write, the stories will always glorify the hunter.”
“The beauty of ‘The Woman King’ is that, for the first time, the lionesses got to write their own story,” the director said.
That brings us back around to Ralph, whose speech closed the ceremony. “How fitting it is that I get to end this award season with all of you,” she said, saluting the Black folks in the room and beyond it for all they’ve accomplished.
“Go home, look in the mirror and love what you see. Because if you think you belong in just Hollywood, you just wait until the world gets ready for what you have to deliver,” she told the crowd. “Because strong people like each and every one of you — in front of the camera, behind the camera, wishing to be somewhere in this industry — you heard it before, it ain’t easy.”
Ralph concluded: “But all of you, you’re so beautiful. You’re so wonderful. You’re so smart. And in the words of the great Viola Davis, ‘You is smart. You is kind. You is important!’”