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In a typical Oscar week, Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood Awards is a star-studded, tears-and-laughter packed, invitation-only luncheon celebrating the industry’s Black female talent. This year, Essence’s 14th time hosting the event, called for a more pandemic friendly, virtual approach, albeit one that still packed plenty of emotion.
“Obviously there aren’t hundreds of people in the room with us,” said Laverne Cox, who hosted the show that honored Zendaya, Whoopi Goldberg, Cynthia Erivo, Michaela Coel and Andra Day. “It’s a global pandemic, people.”
The theme of this year’s awards show, which was taped on a soundstage in Hollywood on April 3 and streamed on Essence.com on April 22, was “Mastering Our Stories.” “So many of us, especially women of color, don’t always have the opportunity to tell our stories, yet alone feel empowered enough to also own them,” Cox said.
The Orange Is the New Black star opened the show with a Bridgerton spoof, Bridgerton Is the New Black, wearing a towering wig and speaking in an English accent as “Lady Whistleup,” a character inspired by the anonymous gossip columnist Julie Andrews voices in Shonda Rhimes’ 19th century–set Netflix hit.
Amid the celebration, honorees delivered some serious speeches, including a striking one by Coel, who was introduced by #MeToo movement originator Tarana Burke and honored for her HBO series I May Destroy You. Coel, who is British, described the 12 days she has spent in Hollywood over the course of her life, including one four-day, jet-lagged trip in which she met with American network executives after the release of her first series in the U.K., Chewing Gum, and pitched a version of what would become I May Destroy You.
“When I look back at that meeting, I think the executives deemed me unstable,” Coel said. “Maybe the frantic, terrified eyes. Maybe because I had no treatment or pilot. Maybe because shortly after the meeting, I was found sleeping behind a truck on the premises. The jet lag was just too much and it was so hot, so I crouched down and slept on the ground. I don’t know if I would make a show with me. To the sister who woke me up and got me a bottle of water, thank you.”
Coel also shared a story of another, very different trip to Hollywood, when she flew on the spur of the moment to accept Janelle Monáe’s invitation to a viewing party for the film that accompanied the release of the singer’s 2018 album Dirty Computer. At the party, Coel met Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland and Monáe for the first time, and ended up spending the night at the house where Monáe and her crew were staying. “I am a visitor,” Coel says, of being honored as a Black woman in Hollywood. “I am just eager to be here and I’m grateful for the invitation to sit down at your table, that I have been given room here, given water, warm welcomes, cuddles, loving emojis. There is only one thing to do with this honor. It is to honor you.”
Day, who is nominated for an Oscar for her role in Hulu’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday, reflected on the role that Essence had played in her career, giving her her first cover and her first red carpet. “I want to express how grateful I am to Black women, cause we are constantly breaking through for each other,” Day said. “You are my sisters.”
Goldberg also held forth on the role Black women and Essence have played in her life and career, describing the moment when she first saw the 50-year-old magazine as a teenager.
“You’ve made it a little bit easier, a little bit nicer to move through all the mishegoss that is Hollywood,” Goldberg said. “I’ve been a Black woman my whole life. To be a Black woman in the world is not always the easiest thing. Essence has always made it clear that we don’t have to be anybody else’s idea of a Black woman…. Thank you for allowing me to be myself, even though it might have been a little strange sometimes.”
The event featured a preshow hosted by Storm Reid, who will also host Essence Hollywood House, a series of discussions with Black creatives from shows and films including Bridgerton, Insecure and Judas and the Black Messiah that will air on Essence.com on April 23.
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