NAACP Image Awards: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis Win for 'Ma Rainey' as Eddie Murphy, Stacey Abrams Honored

Chadwick Viola Eddie Murphy Stacey Abrams
Leon Bennett/Getty Images; Theo Wargo/Getty Images; Michael Kovac/Getty Images; Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

'Bad Boys for Life' won best motion picture and D-Nice won Entertainer of the Year as LeBron James was also honored during the Anthony Anderson-hosted live show and Issa Rae and 'Bridgerton's' Regé-Jean Page were among the award winners.

The 2021 NAACP Image Awards crowned DJ D-Nice, who hosted hit socially distanced dance parties during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, with its top honor of Entertainer of the Year in an evening that featured numerous references to the coronavirus crisis.

There were also numerous references to voter suppression and the role of Black people in the results of the 2020 election, including helping Democrats flip the Senate with the wins of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia. Still, there was no mention of Georgia's recently passed restrictive voting law, which Gov. Brian Kemp signed on Thursday night.

The night kicked off with remote messages from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris talking about the work the NAACP has done, with Harris detailing the work the Biden administration has done in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Black culture is American culture, Black history is American history, and Black stories are essential to the ongoing stories of America," Biden said in part. "To tonight's nominees, thank you for also helping us to see what America can be."

"As a nation, we are at a major turning point. We have surpassed more than 100 million shots in arms. We have sent out more than one million checks. And we are making historic investments in schools, small businesses and communities throughout the country. And still there's so much more to be done, so tonight let us celebrate and tomorrow let's get back to work," Harris said.

Anthony Anderson hosted for the eighth year in a row from a Los Angeles studio, while nominees and winners appeared remotely via video and presenters appeared from iconic locations in L.A., New York and Atlanta that have historic or cultural significance to the Black community, Anderson explained.

During his monologue, the host, sporting a festive silver jacket, joked about his longtime presence, saying he was "back for the 50-11th time" and that the "double A" in NAACP "stands for Anthony Anderson."

"I love hosting this show, not just because the check usually clears," he added, partly in jest. "But really because I love being Black and I love Black people. And the check usually clears."

He continued, "Black people, we are amazing, limitless and remarkable. We made the ironing board, the Super Soaker and Beyoncé, three things the world can't live without. You have to love us."

Anderson also cited the pandemic, the great toilet paper shortage of 2020, Postmates, Tiger King, D-Nice, Verzuz, The Last Dance and Biden and Harris.

Of the latter two, Anderson said, "that's a team that can truly make America great again."

He later spoke about the need to get the COVID-19 vaccine, saying "In order to get past this pandemic, it's important we all get the facts on COVID-19 vaccines to make an informed decision for ourselves and our families."

During the show, Tracy Morgan appeared from the Apollo theater, recalling how he once bombed on that stage; Misty Copeland presented an award from the Dance Theater of Harlem, which she said shows the "importance of the need to create our own institutions when roadblocks are in our way"; Lin-Manuel Miranda appeared from the Audubon theater in Washington Heights, which he noted has been a site for education, worship and entertainment as well as, tragically, where Malcolm X was assassinated; Regina King presented an award in front of Watts towers; Samuel L. Jackson appeared from Morehouse College, citing his own history with the school and notable alumni; and Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys presented from the Black-owned Esowon bookstore in Leimert Park, California, which they called a "tangible symbol of creativity and brilliance of Black authors."

Other presenters for the live show included Andra Day, Cynthia Erivo and the cast of Tyler Perry's Sistas.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom won two awards during the live show (for stars Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman's performances), with Davis also winning for her small-screen role on How to Get Away With Murder.

Those awards bring Ma Rainey's total across the NAACP's live and non-televised ceremonies to three prizes, with the film winning best ensemble cast on Friday night.

Combining the live show and five nights of non-televised ceremonies, in which awards were presented in the majority of this year's categories, Black-ish won a leading five awards, winning in the categories of best actor (Anderson) and supporting actor (Deon Cole) and supporting actress (Marsai Martin) in a comedy series on Friday night, after picking up another two awards earlier in the week, one of which — best performance by a youth in a TV program — also went to Martin.

Beyoncé, who dominated the music-focused Thursday night event, and Soul won four awards each.

Other top winners include three-time winners Power Book II: Ghost and Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, best comedy series winner Insecure (star Issa Rae also won for best actress in a comedy series during Saturday's live show) and former president Barack Obama, whose memoir A Promised Land was named best nonfiction literary work during Monday night's show. (Obama previously was named the recipient of the NAACP's Chairman's Award in 2005).

During the live show, Bad Boys for Life won best motion picture, with stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence appearing together via video, bumping fists. Smith recalled how they made the first film almost 30 years ago and how they're going to try to do a fourth film before they become the "sad boys." Anderson also tried to score a role in what he dubbed Bad Boys Four Life, but Smith and Lawrence just told him they'd call him.

Bridgerton star Regé-Jean Page took the first award, for best actor in a drama series, delivering an excited acceptance speech via video.

"It is the highest honor to represent us and the fullness of our humanity, the fullness of our joy, of our glamour, of our splendor, of our royalty, of our love," Page said. "It is the highest honor to represent that and represent the people I do represent and I will do my absolute best to be worthy of that."

In the virtual press room, Page continued to reflect on the importance of representation.

"This win, as I think kind of spills out of my brain in the moments after it’s announced, it’s the highest honor because I see my job as a representative job. At all times, no matter who you are, when you get on screen, when you get onstage, when you participate in putting culture into the world, you are representing the world around you," he said. "You’re representing the political climate around you. You are representing the people who live through the world that we all share, and you aid in reflecting it back and showing it either as it is or as it could be. And that is integral to how we all navigate the world together, how we kind of play as a team in the real world."

Accepting best actress in a drama series for her role in How to Get Away With Murder, Davis called her experience on the ABC series the "joy and journey of my life."

The actress also thanked executive producer Shonda Rhimes and creator Pete Nowalk for "redefining what it means to be a leading lady, what it means to be a woman, what it means to be black on network television. Thank you for the ride of my life."

Later winning for her role in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Davis thanked playwright August Wilson who wrote the play on which the Netflix film is based, and Netflix execs Ted Sarandos and Scott Stuber as well as her castmates including "the beautiful Chadwick Boseman. I love you Chad."

Davis was joined via video by her husband, Julius Tennon, with Anderson teasing him for going in for a kiss after Davis won her first award but his wife didn't seem to notice. After the second award, Tennon got his kiss, which Anderson noted on the broadcast.

In the virtual pressroom, Davis spoke about the importance of the NAACP Awards honoring Black talent.

"What I will say about Hollywood is the same thing that I say about Black history: Actors and artists of color, we are artists. We belong in the same conversion as everyone else, and it’s because a lot of times we are forgotten or not held in as much esteem as sometimes our white counterparts, is why we need the NAACP Image Awards...I don’t know if I can say I look forward to the day where there is no NAACP Image Awards or whatever because we’re dope, right? But I look forward to the day when we no longer have to teach people how to see us, that we no longer have to keep trying to break out of that shroud of invisibility, where our talent can be embraced as much as our white counterparts. I look forward to that day. But I feel, I really do feel, that the game changers, the rulebreakers, the people who are gonna change the narrative out there is us. That’s who’s gonna change it. We are now harnessing all of our talent, all of our ingenuity and we are literally demanding to be seen."

As for the similarity between the two characters she won awards for playing, Davis said, "I relate to both of them. I relate to any human being that’s trying to navigate their way in the world, and they’re not understood. People refuse to see them. They’re two dark-skinned Black women — that’s a whole other conversation in terms of colorism right there. They’re both smart. They’re talented. They’re a force to be reckoned with, and yet, nobody sees it. They’re constantly having to prove themselves. I get that. That has been my life, and I think it's very honest. I relate to both of them. I have to say at 55, the only thing that has changed is I refuse to explain myself now. That’s the only thing that’s probably changed. But still I feel that what comes at me is still a lot of the energy that came at Ma Rainey and Annalise Keating."

Boseman won the award for best actor in a motion picture for his role in Ma Rainey, with his widow Simone Ledward Boseman accepting on his behalf. During an emotional speech, she used the opportunity to urge members of the black community to take their health seriously and get screened for colon cancer, with Boseman dying this summer after a secret battle with the disease.

"Black people are 20 percent more likely to be diagnosed with colon cancer and 40 percent more likely to die from it," she said. "This disease is beatable if you catch it in its early stages...You are so needed and so loved. Please take your health into your own hands."

Accepting the award for best actress in a comedy series for her role in Insecure, Rae jokingly thanked fellow nominee Tracee Ellis Ross "for losing."

As for what it means to be honored by the NAACP, Rae said, "It means the world to me. It's the only validation that matters, black people's validation."

In the virtual press room, Rae shared her thoughts on inclusion in terms of awards nominees, after the Hollywood Foreign Press was called out in recent weeks for its lack of black members and the Oscars has a particularly diverse class of contenders this year.

"I just want the awards to feel like the NBA finals. There’s no question of who’s the best, there’s no question of the people who made it to the playoffs and the finalists deserve to be there. Nobody got paid off, nobody is fluff, you know that you’re being honored because you created a great piece of work, and I don’t think that’s too much to ask for," she said. "Regardless of race and whatever, I just want the awards and the people behind the scenes to vote based on merit, and it’s kind of hard to do that. I don’t think we’re there yet, but hopefully we’ll get there one day."

Rae also reflected on filming Insecure's final season, teasing that it will be more than eight episodes.

“I’ve been wrapping my head around this since, candidly, season three, but I’m so grateful to be able to play this character who’s obviously a version of me, and in the same way that I want this character to grow, I want to be able to grow, too," Rae said. "I’ve played her for a long time, and I have so much more that I want to do, but being on set everyday, I’m definitely taking it in on a different level now, just in terms of, 'Wow, I love this family. This is my family.' We’ve done so much, and these people are incredible, and I feel so blessed to work with them, and I know that I’ll look back on this time very, very fondly, as I do now."

She added that the show for her and her colleagues on the HBO series has been "such a launchpad for so many of our careers in a way that I never imagined but am so grateful for."

On the increase in shows representing the Black community, Rae said, "I think in the abstract, I always credit the Obama era. I feel like that, in the same way that Hollywood is always influenced by the culture and politics in a way, I think that seeing a Black man in the White House and a Black family triggered something in studio heads where they were just like, 'Let's make more content that caters to Black people. This is amazing.' And I feel like that indirectly translated into making sure that we have more representation on the screen, and, then of course, with the success of shows like Scandal and ultimately Black-ish, there was more of a hunger for our stories, and it was the rare time where Hollywood was in step with what the culture wanted, what Black culture wanted to see, what we had been demanding for years. And since then, things have changed, but I think that we make culture in so many ways, and people are just catching up to us and finally catching up to how good our stories are."

In the virtual pressroom, D-Nice spoke about the process of creating his "Club Quarantine" events, saying that they came out of him being home alone, feeling depressed about the pandemic and the canceled gigs and isolation caused by it.

"I just woke up that morning and opened my laptop up and just wanted to feel connected to people," he said. "It wasn’t even about dj-ing, it was just me wanting to play music and share stories with people, and it turned into what it did within like a week, and it’s still kind of insane.”

As for what the experience meant to him, he recalled how he had connected with a doctor who asked him to shout-out a patient, who listened to him every night he was on before sadly dying.

“That was a hard thing for me. I just knew that for as long as we were going to be quarantined, as much as I could do it, I wanted to just be a source of inspiration to people, even if it just allowed someone to take their minds off whatever they were dealing with for 30 minutes, just to be in the chat. It was important to me. This was truly one of the highest honors that I’ve ever been presented, and it means the most because I know what it really meant to people," he said.

Michelle Obama presented the first Social Justice Impact award to Stacey Abrams, praising Abrams for knowing that "organizing on the ground is the best way to crack a ceiling."

Abrams, accepting via video and holding her award, recalled how she was raised by her parents "to see the challenges in our world as opportunities to act."

"I give thanks to those who came before who used their hands and too often their lives to create the future we deserve. The giants and the footsoldiers who never let their circumstances stop them from fighting to ensure that this nation lived up to its ideals," she added. "I share this award with all those who champion progress, equity and the truth of who we are and what we must become as a nation, one that expands and defends democracy, that protects justice as a current promise not a future hope, one that delivers equality and equity, knowing that both are required. We are a nation of impact."

James received the President's Award, recognizing special achievement and distinguished public service, with previous recipients including Rihanna, Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, Jesse Jackson, Lauryn Hill, Soledad O’Brien, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Muhammad Ali.

Beyond his achievements in the NBA, which include four championship wins and MVP awards, and two Olympic gold medals, James is an entrepreneur whose SpringHill Company unites the business he founded with Maverick Carter including athlete empowerment media and consumer product company UNINTERRUPTED, production company SpringHill Enertainment and brand and culture consultancy The Robot Company. Ahead of the 2020 election, James founded More Than A Vote, a coalition of Black athletes and artists dedicated to educating, energizing and protecting Black voters.

“LeBron James is one of the greatest athletes of his generation, and through his work both on and off the court, has transcended beyond sports to become a cultural icon,” NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson, who presented the award onstage on Saturday night, said in announcing the honor. “This is nowhere more evident than over the past year, where LeBron has used his platform to speak out on issues that were directly affecting the Black community including voting initiatives, police brutality, and racial inequality. LeBron epitomizes the type of leadership, sportsmanship, and commitment to social justice that we seek to highlight with our President’s Award.”

During the live show, Johnson thanked James for "not shutting up and just dribbling."

Accepting the award via video and wearing a T-shirt highlighting his LeBron James Family Foundation, James, who noted he was seated as his doctor had told him not to put weight on his ankle after his recent injury, said, "This award is obviously much more than myself. I'm here receiving it but this dives into everything that I'm apart of."

Through the SpringHill Company, James said, "We continue to uplift people of color, people of diverse, all shapes and sizes, we give them a platform, give them voices...and continue to bring great things to people's living rooms and phones and things of that nature, but more importantly, it gives me an opportunity to give out jobs to some of the greatest creators and greatest minds that we can find."

He cited voter suppression in the black community in mentioning More Than A Vote and said he was proud of everything he and his colleagues were able to do in the 2020 election.

This year's Chairman's Award, given to individuals who use public service to create agents of change, was presented to prominent civil rights leader Rev. James Lawson, who was honored for his work as a social change advocate and role in the civil rights movement, particularly nonviolent protests in the South in the 1960s. Previous Chairman's Award recipients include Obama, Tyler Perry, Maxine Waters, Ruby Dee, The Neville Brothers, Bono, Danny Glover and John Lewis.

“Last summer we saw millions around the world take to the streets in the most powerful protests for racial justice and civil rights in a generation. These protests were inspired by the work of Civil Rights Movement leaders like Rev. James Lawson,” NAACP chairman Leon W. Russell said in a statement announcing Lawson's honor. “In this pivotal moment for Black history, there is no better time to recognize Rev. Lawson’s tremendous contributions to American history and to live up to his example.”

Russell presented the award to Lawson from Ebenezer Baptist Church. Lawson called the honor a "stupendous surprise."

"Your history is exemplary," he added. "May you in the 21st century continue to be the pioneer for the justice and truth and liberty of all humankind."

Saturday night's show also saw Murphy inducted into the NAACP Hall of Fame by longtime friend and collaborator Arsenio Hall. Murphy and Hall can currently be seen in their long-gestating sequel, Coming 2 America, streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

"Any way you measure it, he's the GOAT," Hall said of Murphy.

Murphy, appearing via video holding his award, recognized the "unbelievable company" he was in as part of the Hall of Fame, and how he'd made movies for 40 years. He also took a minute to fire back at Hall after Hall joked about his tight red suit, saying it wasn't that tight and that the ensemble was stylish when he wore it.

In a non-televised award announced on Saturday nightTabitha Brown won the prize for outstanding social media personality.

In the virtual pressroom, Brown talked about the role of social media in her career, saying, "Social media has been a great platform for me that has led me back around to my dreams and my passions that I had ever since I was a little girl."

She added, "I’ve been acting for the last 23 years but never really had those big breaks, and thank God for social media because it literally brought my family — as I call them — fans to me, and they uplifted me and helped me get to the next level. So, the next five years, I’ll be doing my own TV shows and movies and continuing to do content and telling stories through food and other people stories and just continue to try my best to spread light and love and laughter and just always be unique. That’s the most important part for me.”

The show also included performances from Jazmine Sullivan and Maxwell, celebrating the 25th anniversary of his debut album Urban Hang Suite.

A complete list of winners from the 52nd NAACP Image Awards live show follows.

Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series
Issa Rae - Insecure (HBO) (WINNER)
Folake Olowofoyeku - Bob Hearts Abishola (CBS)
Regina Hall - Black Monday (Showtime)
Tracee Ellis Ross - Black-ish (ABC)
Yara Shahidi - Grown-ish (Freeform)

Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series
Regé-Jean Page - Bridgerton (Netflix) (WINNER)
Jonathan Majors - Lovecraft Country (HBO)
Keith David - Greenleaf (OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network)
Nicco Annan - P-Valley (Starz)
Sterling K. Brown - This Is Us (NBC)

Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series
Viola Davis - How To Get Away With Murder (ABC) (WINNER)
Angela Bassett - 9-1-1 (FOX)
Brandee Evans - P-Valley (Starz)
Jurnee Smollett - Lovecraft Country (HBO)
Simone Missick - All Rise (CBS)

Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture
Viola Davis - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Netflix) (WINNER)
Issa Rae - The Photograph (Universal Pictures)
Janelle Monáe - Antebellum (Lionsgate)
Madalen Mills - Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (Netflix)
Tracee Ellis Ross - The High Note (Focus Features)

Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture
Chadwick Boseman - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Netflix) (WINNER)
Anthony Mackie - The Banker (Apple)
Delroy Lindo - Da 5 Bloods (Netflix)
Forest Whitaker - Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (Netflix)
Will Smith - Bad Boys For Life (Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Outstanding Motion Picture
Bad Boys For Life (Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Entertainment) (WINNER)
Da 5 Bloods (Netflix)
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (Netflix)
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Netflix)
One Night In Miami… (Amazon Studios)

Social Justice Impact
Stacey Abrams (WINNER)
April Ryan
Debbie Allen
LeBron James
Tamika Mallory

Entertainer of the Year
D-Nice (WINNER)
Regina King
Viola Davis
Trevor Noah
Tyler Perry

Additional reporting by Christy Piña.