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The 16th annual Essence Black Women in Hollywood event welcomed a constellation of stars — working both in front of and behind the camera — to the Fairmont Century Plaza in Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon. The luncheon honored Danielle Deadwyler (Till), Dominique Thorne (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever), Tara Duncan (president of Onyx Collective), Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Woman King) and Sheryl Lee Ralph (Abbott Elementary).
Hosted by actor Boris Kodjoe, the event italicized the contributions Black women have made in film and television — particularly this year, but also across eras and generations. Essence magazine’s existence as a platform for Black representation since 1970 found kinship with Hollywood, an industry of images. At the event, many attendees acknowledged how the forward-thinking vision of Essence‘s founders is akin to the work Black creatives in entertainment are doing presently.
Thorne, who began her acceptance speech with a prayer in the form of a letter to God, said that her 25 years have taught her that “this world is overly eager to forget, ignore, overlook, endanger, misuse, misunderstand and otherwise brutalize the Black woman. Yet in that same world, Essence stands — and has stood — proud and immovable to amplify our truths…to honor our mystique and to celebrate our successes.”
On the carpet, supermodel Beverly Johnson shared that the first three shoots of her career were with Vogue, Glamour and Essence. “Essence Magazine and I started the same year. It’ll be 50 years for me in 2024,” she said. “What I always knew as I traveled throughout the world as this token Black model was that I had a home in Essence. I always knew it would be there for me.”
Essence‘s vp content and executive editor Danielle Cadet told The Hollywood Reporter: “The brand has such an incredible foundation and I’m really interested in taking it into the next chapter and serving that audience of Millennial and Gen Z Black women who are entering into a different phase of life.”
Attica and Tembi Locke — who tugged at heartstrings with Netflix’s From Scratch last year — agreed that the event felt like “sisterhood.”
“I feel less alone, more like we’re part of an army of women who are just out here doing the thing, and that we have each other’s backs,” showrunner Attica said.
Tembi added: “It’s incredibly inspiring to be in a room with Black women who are all laser-focused on elevating our stories and also revealing the depth and breadth of who we are to the world.”
Another pair of sisters, Tia and Tamera Mowry, struck out on the carpet later in the afternoon. The event was also attended by Chinonye Chukwu, Daniel Kaluuya, Ryan Coogler, Yara Shahidi, Indya Moore, Kiki Layne and others.
Arsema Thomas, who plays young Agatha Danbury in Netflix’s Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story (out May 4), shared some hints about what audiences can expect from the prequel spinoff. “Bridgerton is so light and beautiful and fun with the balls and the gowns, [but] Queen Charlotte is about the back story. It’s about what had to happen so that this kind of community could even exist. You see all the hard work and struggle that it took to make that world, so I think it’s just a bit more grounded in reality. It’s going to be a different feel, like a different texture.”
The celebration of Black women in Hollywood initiated dialogue about how political definitions of womanhood are at odds with the reality of many people’s lives; in a time when legislation is targeting transgender people intentionally and specifically, stories about nuanced identities are being championed for the screen as well.
Lena Waithe, who joined the team behind Sundance documentary Kokomo City (which follows the lives of four transgender Black women in New York and Georgia and is directed by D. Smith) as an executive producer, said that she was “blown away by it — by the vulnerability, by the honesty. I just felt like it was an important part of a conversation that we all need to be having.”
During the luncheon, Chloe Bailey, whose debut solo album In Pieces is out March 31, performed.
Upon accepting her award, Deadwyler spoke about coming to Hollywood from her native Atlanta, and struggling to navigate the terrain, especially while in search of community. To this end, the actress’ speech was a list of numbered tips she called, “Notes on a coming into multiple literacies, for the multi-literate Black woman.”
Disney executive and honoree Tara Duncan shared a memory from her childhood of her mother braiding Black women’s hair and the role Essence played in her idea of true representation. “At my house, we had a braid room and it was a room where women from all over our community would come and share stories and flip through the stacks of my mom’s Essence magazines,” Duncan said Thursday. “I don’t have to explain to this room how sacred that time is. Essence set the tone for the conversations.”
Quinta Brunson welcomed Sheryl Lee Ralph to the stage and spoke about how perfect she felt the actress was for the role of Barbara Howard on Abbott Elementary, and how surprised she was that the “legend” was available to work on the show.
After celebrating countless other Black female entertainers in her speech, Ralph shared a brief anecdote about a time co-chairman of Disney entertainment Dana Walden empowered her during ABC’s upfronts for the now-hit mockumentary sitcom. “She said, ‘Sheryl Lee Ralph, this is going to be the greatest time of your whole career. Don’t dream small, dream big, and ask for exactly what you want.'”
Following an impassioned speech from Viola Davis introducing her to the stage, two-time honoree Prince-Bythewood quoted novelist Chinua Achebe, who wrote in Things Fall Apart: “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.”
The director added, “But the beauty of The Woman King is that for the first time, the lionesses got to write their own story.”
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