In the midst of the Hollywood awards season, the Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon is a welcome departure from the scripted formalities of awards speeches. Everyone already knows who is being honored, so there’s no pressure, and the guests are just happy to be there to support their peers and idols. Held Thursday over a long lunch in the elegant Beverly Hills Hotel, the 2013 honorees were: Oprah Winfrey, Alfre Woodard, Mara Brock Akil (Girlfriends), Gabrielle Union, Naomie Harris (Skyfall), and Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild).
The crowded red carpet had the feel of a happy high school reunion — with Naomi Campbell, Blair Underwood, Ava DuVernay, and Kelly Rowland. But the excitement about Oprah kept everyone anchored and thrilled. “People respond to truth. She owns her body, she owns her truth,” said Tamera Mowry-Housley. David Oyelowo (Lincoln, Middle of Nowhere) told EW, “Oprah means the world to me.” Having just come off of filming The Butler with Winfrey, he added: “She’s become a great friend and a great mentor. She’s just a wonderful, wonderful human being. It’s a real privilege to be here.”
Quvenzhané Wallis was presented with the first award for Breakthrough Performance. Wallis, sporting Hello Kitty earrings and her signature puppy purse, thanked God, Essence, her babysitter on set, and “Mr. Benh Zeitlin and the Court 13 family for believing I could actually play Hushpuppy.” The soft-spoken 9-year-old — who was only 6 when she made the indie film — is nearing the end of a whirlwind year with Beasts, culminating in the Academy Awards this Sunday where she’s nominated for Best Actress.
It was a feel-good way to begin what would turn into an emotional, honest, and raw event as the other more-experienced honorees took the stage to accept their awards. Gabrielle Union, recipient of the Fierce and Fearless award, told the audience, “I’d been pretending to be fierce and fearless for a very long time. I was a victim masquerading as a survivor. I stayed when I should have run. I was quiet when I should have spoken up and I turned a blind eye to injustice instead of having the courage to stand up for what’s right.” Union elaborated on her Hollywood experiences of being told that “if we go black [for this part], it’ll totally be you. As if the routine exclusion of women of color in the casting process is okay as long as I’m considered.”
Common introduced Lincoln Shining Star honoree Naomie Harris and said, “It’s an honor to be among and feel the love amongst black women, and we’re here to support you as black men.” When A/V problems delayed Harris’ highlight montage, Common took the opportunity to craft an impromptu rap about the nominees to the delight of the audience. Instead of giving her pre-written speech, Harris told the audience how moved she was by Union’s and confided that she’s in the same place.
Girlfriends creator Mara Brock-Akil won the Visionary Award and delivered a tearful speech to her Girlfriends stars — Tracee Ellis Ross, Golden Brooks, Persia White, and Jill Marie Jones — who shared the stage with her. “I wanted to say, you guys deserved so many Emmys,” she said. “These girls can act rings around Friends.”
Alfre Woodard, recipient of the Vanguard Award, got an extra special introduction — a letter from her friend Michelle Obama. “I’ve had a really good run,” Woodard said. She talked about her first experiences in Los Angeles and realizing that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her or her peers. “We didn’t fit the mold, we didn’t break our mold. We still have our original noses,” she said. The audience went a little wild with laughter. “If you don’t, that’s fine,” she added. “I just couldn’t think of one that would fit better.”
Oprah Winfrey was the final honoree to speak, and told the audience that she’d grown up with Essence since the very first issue. “What a thrill and delight to see yourself reflected on the pages when you are a young, growing woman,” Winfrey said. She added that through her years of interviewing she realized something when a common question kept coming up. After every interview, her subject would ask, “Was that okay?” Winfrey said. “We’re all looking to know that we are seen, we are heard, and what we say means something. … Everybody wants to know that they matter. And you can just dissolve any argument the moment the person recognizes that they are being heard, they are being seen, and what they say matters. This award means something special to me and it matters. … Because when Essence says it, I believe it is true.”