Don Lemon encouraged Hollywood stars, executives and activists to move beyond trite language celebrating diversity and to take action to realize it at The Hollywood Reporter’s inaugural Empowerment in Entertainment event on Tuesday.
The CNN Tonight host, delivering the event’s keynote speech at Milk Studios in Hollywood, urged attendees including Amazon’s Jennifer Salke and Netflix’s Cindy Holland to “resist the easy path” of hiring the same crew and cast on projects, and to couple words like “inclusion and empowerment” with the work it takes to produce real change.
Before his speech, Lemon thanked Oprah Winfrey, who was sitting front and center. He recalled that, as a young man in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he would watch news shows and see Winfrey do promotions for her show and think, “‘Who is this woman’? I want to do this.” He added, “You taught me about not being perfect, to be perfect in my imperfection.”
Lemon started his speech by noting that, in his own profession, journalists are wary of “jargon” that ceases to mean what it purports to. “These two words — ‘inclusion’ and ’empowerment’ — are in danger of becoming jargon,” he said. “It’s become too easy for leaders and people of influence to hide behind these words, to use them as a point of deflection while their real meaning continues to elude the people who need them most.”
Lemon admitted to feeling a mild sense of dread when he began writing his speech for Tuesday’s event, wary of another speech that praised diversity and inclusion but didn’t inspire people to do the real work those words entail. “I also imagine that in this room, many of us are feeling fatigued. We are tired of having this conversation about diversity and inclusion and empowerment. It is 2019, y’all,” he told the room. “We are feeling that for every step forward, we are often taking two steps back.”
While the U.S. has made a lot of progress in including marginalized populations, Lemon acknowledged, celebrating progress does not fulfill the goals of inclusion and empowerment. He told the story of Max Robinson, the first network TV news anchor of color and a close personal friend of Winfrey’s. “He was not only a person of color, he was a colorful person, right, and history has neglected him because of struggles in his personal life, many self-inflicted,” Lemon said.
Robinson weathered many “controversies” over the course of his life, Lemon continued. He was fired from one job when, while reading the news behind a slideshow, he told a station hand to remove a slide that would hide the color of his skin while he reported a story; and at ABC, he “ruffled feathers” when he delivered a speech at Smith College condemning his network’s tendency to only look to black reporters for news that involved race, civil rights or what was considered issues pertinent to his race. Before Robinson died due to complications from AIDS in 1988, he asked his family to reveal the real cause of his death to warn black Americans of its dangers, though, at the time, President Ronald Reagan had never stated the name of the disease.
Lemon thought of Robinson when writing his speech “because he is not the typical hero we lionize in pursuit of inclusion and empowerment … because he never chose to be the icon of diversity in his field,” he said. “Because he recognized early on that the best way to achieve this goal was to sometimes break the rules and speak out.”
Added the CNN anchor, “I encourage all of you to please do the same. Actions over words.”
Lemon’s speech followed a welcome from event host Ciara, an opening address from actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani and remarks from THR editorial director Matthew Belloni and executive vp and group publisher Lynne Segall. After speaking, Lemon gave the stage to singer and actress Selena Gomez, who presented the first-ever Young Executives Fellows.
Lemon was recently named one of THR‘s 35 most powerful people in New York media for having “doubled down on his impassioned addresses to the camera, drawing the ire of [President Donald] Trump.”
Empowerment in Entertainment was presented by WME with platinum sponsor Amazon Prime Video and sponsored by Entertainment One, Imax, OWN, Starz and Casamigos.