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The power of sisterhood was the overriding theme at this year’s Essence Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon, which felt more like a family reunion than an awards celebration. The eighth annual Academy Award-week gathering at Beverly Hill’s Beverly Wilshire Hotel brought out such high-wattage names as Oprah Winfrey, Selma principals Ava DuVernay, David Oyelowo, John Legend and Common, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, director/producer Shonda Rhimes and actress Kelly Rowland.
Winfrey opened the luncheon with a remembrance of poet/author/activist Dr. Maya Angelou. “We lost a warrior woman last year; bodacious, kind, strong, powerful,” said Winfrey. She also noted that Angelou passed away last year on the day Winfrey filmed her first scene for Selma. After quoting from a personal note Angelou had sent her (“continue … and by doing so you and your work will be able to continue eternally”), Winfrey was joined onstage by actresses Carmen Ejogo (Selma) and Aja Naomi King (How to Get Away With Murder) for the remainder of the opening presentation.
Five awards were given out during the 2 1/2 -hour luncheon. Director/screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood presented the Essence Short Film Contest Discovery Award to writer/actress Iman N. Milner (Love Escapes Us). The cast of the Emmy Award-winning series Orange Is the New Black (Adrienne C. Moore, Danielle Brooks, Laverne Cox, Lorraine Toussaint, Samira Wiley, Uzo Aduba and Vicky Jeudy) received the Vanguard Award from Nyong’o.
Oyelowo took the stage to give the Lincoln Breakthrough of the Year Award to fellow Oxford-born thespian Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights), who will next appear in the sports drama Concussion with Will Smith. At one point in her acceptance speech, Mbatha-Raw wondered, “I’m British, both black and white; do I even qualify to be here?” From the back of the ballroom, a voice shouted yes and the audience broke into hearty applause.
Showrunner Mara Brock-Akil presented the Fierce & Fealess Award to actress/director Regina King, while Academy Award-nominated costume designer Ruth E. Carter (Selma, Malcolm X, Amistad) was given the Visionary Award by Selma director DuVernay. Rounding out the afternoon festivities: Legend’s performance of his No. 1 hit “All of Me” followed by the singer joining Common on the pair’s Academy Award-nominated “Glory”.
Essence Black Women in Hollywood will also air as a primetime special on the OWN Network. Hosted by Tracey Edmonds and Shemar Moore, the special will air on Saturday, Feb. 21 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
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