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Essence Festival: Ava DuVernay, Babyface, Janelle Monae among day one stars

Maxwell, New Edition, Terry McMillan and more show up for the New Orleans festival

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Essence Fest is Comic-Con for the African-American community. They come in families. They come with friends. They come to be entertained. To feel empowered. To feel loved. And they are. By the movie studios and television networks that come courting with their latest wares. By the big brands like Walmart, McDonalds, and Coca-Cola that sponsor stages in the main convention center, sponsor the concerts at New Orleans’ Superdome and provide lounge areas for festival-goers to take a break.

But mostly it’s a celebration. Everyone seems to be in a good mood. And why not: New Edition is performing the same tight choreography they did when they were starting out in the ’80s, albeit with a few more pounds on them and some additional gray hairs. Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds is running through the crowd singing his 1992 classic End of the Road. Sweat is pouring down his face, shirt is unbuttoned, and everyone is giving him high-fives. And Maxwell is crooning some new tunes from his latest album, which he also released Friday.

Janelle Monae has flown in to show off her big-screen debut in the highly anticipated 20th Century Fox film Hidden Figures, which opens wide in January. She’s joined on stage by her costar Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton), and the two discuss their experience making the Ted Melfi-directed film about the black female mathematicians who were key parts of NASA’s efforts to get the first man to the moon. When actual NASA astronaut Victor Glover heads on stage to commend the actors for bringing this story to light things take on a deeper meaning.

Terry McMillan has come to chat about her life and her new novel I Almost Forgot About You. The 64-year-old novelist draws a crowd for her frank admissions about her own life: “I want a husband. I gave up sugar. I lost 18 pounds but I don’t want to lose anymore.” And she gives a big shout-out to the audience. “There are all different kinds of women here. All different shapes, all different booties, and we are all beautiful. I love it.” She then reads a chapter in her new book that elucidates all the famous men her character would like to sleep with, from Denzel Washington to Brad Pitt to Ken Watanabe. The crowd goes nuts.

Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, is here showing off her new television show for the OWN network, Queen Sugar. And she’s doing it first for the Essence community: providing them access to the new stars who are appearing on the convention hall floor to take pictures and meet fans, many of whom have only seen the trailer for the September show. She’s doing it by introducing her cast — True Blood’s Rutina Wesley, up-and-comer Dawn-Lyen Gardner, and sure-to-be-heartthrob Kofi Siriboe — on the live edition of The Real talk show. And she’s doing it by screening the first episode for a select group of tastemakers, including the rapper Common, who will perform Saturday night at the Superdome; Monae, who’s Wonderland Records label is providing some of the show’s music; actors Omari Hardwick, Lynn Whitfield, and many others. It’s a rousing screening and Q&A, where deep emotions are being shared in the intimate setting. While DuVernay hands out tissues, Monae’s manager, Mikael Moore, thanks her for “showing black men loving and hurting.”

Queen Sugar centers on three grown siblings who, despite their differences, must come together to right the ship after their father suddenly passes away. DuVernay promises to investigate the lives of people we don’t often see on television: the recently incarcerated man (Siriboe) struggling with providing for his son when he can’t land a job; a May-Sept. romance between an older woman and a younger man (Tina Lifford, Omar J. Dorsey); and two sisters who are dealing with their stark class differences (Wesley, Gardner)​

And that’s just day one. Stay tuned for more coverage Sunday after Mariah Carey performs and Oprah Winfrey graces the Essence stage for the first time in the festival’s 22-year history.