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Essence Magazine‘s Black Women in Hollywood event, now in its 15th year, is known for eliciting plenty of emotion from its honorees, and Thursday’s event — heralding Oscar nominee Aunjanue Ellis, Quinta Brunson, Chanté Adams, and Nia Long — was no exception.
The luncheon, which drew stars including Will Smith, Serena Williams, Lena Waithe, MJ Rodriguez, Robin Thede, Donald Glover and past honoree Lashanna Lynch, featured a sermon-like speech from Ellis, who celebrated working in what she described as “darkness.”
“So much about darkness is derided: it’s horrific, we’re trained to fear it, we’re trained to think that it’s ugly, it’s used as the basis for colorism, for racism. But there is this thing that’s called ‘dark matter’ and it makes up 80 percent of the entire universe. It’s called dark matter because people can’t see it but they know that it exists because, without it, the behavior of the stars, the planets, and the galaxies would make no sense,” Ellis said, reading from the podium.
The metaphors continued as she described her career, saying: “Much of my 27-year professional life has been in the dark…this moment of shine, of luminosity, is going to pass…but I will continue to work in the dark anyway.”
Ellis received a standing ovation from the audience, one of several during the afternoon’s event at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, which also included guests Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Niecy Nash, Natasha Rothwell, stylist Law Roach, Tank (whose performance closed out the afternoon), Tristan Wilds, costume designer Ruth E. Carter, Warner Bros. TV Group chairman Channing Dungey, Universal Studio Group chairman Pearlena Igbokwe, lawyer Nina Shaw and director Gina Prince-Bythewood.
Snowfall star Damson Idris served as the afternoon’s master of ceremonies. The Brit told The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet, “It’s a blessing and privilege to be seen by the community and I can’t wait to use my platform today to give life and light to so many of these remarkable women.”
Honoree Adams, who won the special jury prize for breakthrough performance at Sundance in 2017 for her role as rapper Roxanne Shanté in Roxanne, Roxanne, told THR she hopes “to continue to take up space and make space in places where we usually don’t see ourselves — and provide representation for women coming up after us.”
The newcomer, who starred opposite Michael B. Jordan in Denzel Washington’s 2021 romantic drama A Journal for Jordan and has also been seen in Stella Meghie’s 2020 film The Photograph alongside Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, wore a royal purple dress by Sergio Hudson — “I had to pull out a Black designer!” — and reflected on the feeling of being honored at the event, in such inspiring company. “I’m always honored even when I get an invite to come to an event like this. It’s always a good day to be a Black woman, but on a day that celebrates Black women in Hollywood? It’s the best day.”
Nia Long, whose film legacy spans generations, played Adams’ mother in Roxanne, Roxanne and told THR that Thursday’s honor rendered her “speechless, but in a beautiful way,” adding: “I’m emotional, but that’s good. That means this means something, and that we’re doing something as a community and as a culture…moments like this, days like this, are reminders that I have to celebrate myself and acknowledge that. When you stop and go: my purpose here has made an impact on a generation of women, that’s important.”
Brunson, who has been credited with reviving the broadcast television comedy sitcom format with her smash mockumentary hit Abbott Elementary on ABC, described the day as “unlike any other event, a bunch of Black women recharging each other” and spoke to THR about recently being renewed for a second season and her show’s fresh take on representation.
“Schools are a big workplace environment for the Black community. So it’s more than just throwing Black people on screen, it’s a place where so many of us actually work and so many of our kids are from day to day — it is a natural habitat for Black characters…it naturally breeds warmth, comedy, empathy, and so many other things,” Brunson said, adding: “I want to make sure that we make just as good of a season next season… we don’t want to feel safe.”
Over the course of the event, each honoree was lovingly introduced by a former collaborator: Producer Mimi Valdes worked with Adams on Roxanne, Roxanne; Larenz Tate recounted poetic memories of being Long’s leading man in the cult classic Love Jones; Glover remembered first meeting Brunson as a PA on one of his music videos, and Smith heralded his co-star’s personality.
“At the core of Aunjanue is a fierce, noble, integrity. And what is beautiful about being friends with Aunjanue is she demands it of you in the most loving way,” Smith said.
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