Spike Lee, Michael B. Jordan Honor Denzel Washington at AFI Gala, Beyonce Drops By

Denzel Washington at Life Achievement Award Gala - H Getty 2019
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for WarnerMedia

'Black Panther' stars Chadwick Boseman and Jordan feted the actor, along with former co-stars Julia Roberts and Jodie Foster.

Many of Hollywood's top creatives— from Spike Lee and Issa Rae to Ava DuVernay — were on hand at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on Thursday night to honor the latest AFI Lifetime achievement award recipient Denzel Washington. But the night's first presenter was a star no one was expecting: Beyoncé. 

The "Lemonade" singer was there to present the Institute’s Franklin J. Shaffner Alumni Medal to AFI grad and director Melina Matsoukas, who worked with the singer on multiple music videos, including the award-winning video for "Formation."  

Said the music superstar of her longtime collaborator: "She is holding up a mirror for people who look like you and me to see ourselves, saying, ‘You are beautiful, and your stories matter.’ She is fearless, no matter the challenges, and believes in breaking stereotypes in the industry, hiring marginalized creators, especially women. As a woman of color, conformity is not her thing." 

Jamie Foxx was the first to speak about Washington, offering up a story about how he invited Washington over to his house, where he had hired a mariachi band to play. "I just tried to do something different. When I told him I got a mariachi band, he went: 'OK. OK. Let's see this mariachi'," Foxx recalled, employing his best Washington impersonation. 

"Mr. Washington's arrival was a seismic moment for my generation. It was hard to articulate the pride we all felt in seeing one of us as a leading man working at the highest level," said Oscar winner Mahershala Ali from the Dolby stage.

And Michael B. Jordan talked about how Washington's performance in Glory informed his own performance as Killmonger in superhero movie Black Panther, while Jordan's Marvel co-star Chadwick Boseman offered: "There would be no Black Panther without Denzel Washington."

Washington, the eight-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner for his performances in Training Day and Glory, was the 47th recipient of AFI's honor. The gala, which featured a moving performance by Jennifer Hudson of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," was taped and is set to air on June 20 on TNT, followed by encore presentations on sister network TCM.

Washington, who was last seen in theaters with action sequel The Equalizer 2, is readying to play Lord Macbeth in an A24 and Scott Rudin production of William Shakespeare's Macbeth from director Joel Coen that co-stars Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. Coen and McDormand were front and center at the Thursday evening ceremony, along with Paramount head Jim Gianopulos, Frank Marshall, Netflix's Ted Sarandos and Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek.

Also at the event, it was announced that Kathleen Kennedy would be taking over for Howard Stringer as the elected chair of the AFI Board of Trustees. "I am sorry not to be with you tonight, but the new immigration laws in your country are far too stringent," said Stringer in a video message announcing Kennedy's election. "I am leaving you in the best of hands, for my role will be filled by one of the most dynamic producers and executives in movie history."

Julia Roberts, who due to a scheduling conflict missed out on presenting last year's AFI honor to George Clooney, was on hand this year to honor her Pelican Brief co-star, while Jodie Foster offered well-wishes to her Inside Man counterpart. And Antoine Fuqua said his Training Day actor "brings his A-game, every day."

Legendary actress Cicely Tyson received a standing ovation ahead of her speech, during which she talked about the four decade-long relationship between Washington and his wife, Pauletta, who were joined at the gala by two of their children, Malcolm and Katia. "They made it their business to put their family first, and that is why they are still together," noted Tyson.

Lee, who first worked with Washington on 1990's Mo' Better Blues and directed the actor in his Oscar-nominated performance in Malcolm X, was the evening's final speaker and handed Washington his award, saying, "We are talking about the G.O.A.T. We are talking about Michael Jordan. We are talking about Frank Sinatra. We are talking about Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis. That is the rarified air that Denzel Washington lives and breathes in."

For his part, when Washington took the stage, he began his acceptance speech by saying, "If nothing else, I am living proof of the power of God. Anything you think you see and you think you know where it comes from, the opportunities that I have been afforded, I have been given by the grace of God."

After thanking everyone from Lee to Ridley Scott and Bruce Paltrow, Washington closed the night with a suggestion: "In this Twitter, meme, mean world we have created for our children, the least we can do is think about young people and the future and to, collectively, do the best we can to try to turn this thing around. What an opportunity we have, because tomorrow is the first day of the rest of our lives."

The tribute special will premiere on TNT on Thursday, June 20 at 10pm.