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Celebrating 15 years of the ‘Essence’ Black Women in Hollywood Awards

This event is about sisterhood and affirmation

Five years ago, Issa Rae stood in the ballroom of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, staring into a sea of powerful and accomplished Black women. “This is my favorite event,” said Rae, who was being honored with the Vanguard Award at the 2017 Essence Black Women in Hollywood Awards. “It’s the only one my publicist doesn’t have to force me to go to.”

Though Rae’s quip elicited laughter from the packed audience, the sentiment was one that everyone in the room shared. 

“It’s definitely an appointment that Black women in Hollywood don’t want to miss,” Cori Murray, deputy editor at Essence, told Andscape ahead of the 15th annual Essence Black Women in Hollywood Awards on Thursday. She isn’t wrong. Hollywood’s biggest powerbrokers, from television producer Shonda Rhimes and television personality Oprah Winfrey to entertainment lawyer Nina Shaw and Channing Dungey, chair of the Warner Bros. Television Group, have attended this event. And folks like me — a journalist who has both attended as a guest and covered it for work — look forward to it.

The luncheon, which takes place on the Thursday before the Academy Awards, is one of the hottest tickets of awards season. Publicists hustle to try to get their clients on the list, companies buy whole tables just to get into the building, and journalists happily sign up to speak to the seemingly endless line of Black Hollywood royalty who sweep down the red carpet. 

“This year has been a bit more challenging because we reduced the guest list greatly because of COVID. We lost about 200 seats because we’re trying to keep people healthy,” Murray said, noting they typically host around 400 guests at the Beverly Wilshire.

Still, the draw isn’t about who you’ll see — though I can attest that being in the same room as Winfrey, film director Spike Lee, lawyer Anita Hill, record executive Diddy and singer-songwriter Kelly Rowland felt pretty dope. Instead, Essence‘s celebration of Black women in front of and behind the camera is important because of how it makes you feel.

“It was always celebratory, but I think it’s more celebratory now because so many of the women have stepped into their power, and something about that has elevated the room,” Murray said. “When they walk in it’s like Wakanda — there are no microaggressions at the luncheon, there are no slights, there’s just pure joy.”

My first time attending the Black Women in Hollywood Awards was in 2014. I was covering the red carpet for Essence’s website, interviewing celebs as they arrived. I tried to keep my composure, but as singer-songwriter Brandy, producer Tyler Perry, model Bethann Hardison, actress Margaret Avery and broadcast journalist Gayle King made their way down the line to speak to me, I couldn’t help but fangirl out a little bit. I was again blown away when I entered the ballroom, a space filled with candles, Black woman excellence and flowers — so many flowers it felt like I had been transported to a secret garden where Black women ran the world.

To quote a song sung by Auntie Stephanie Mills, being in that room felt good all over. Endless champagne, sisterly hugs, amazing outfits and squeals of laughter erupt around you from every corner of the room. The Essence Black Women in Hollywood Awards is not only a whole lot of fun, but for those few short hours, it’s life-affirming, too.

Being in that room is also confirmation you aren’t alone, even if you’re the lone Black woman on your set, in your workplace or on your team. Like actress KiKi Layne said at the luncheon in 2019, “It’s showing me that I’m not by myself in all of this.”

“I don’t want to sound cliché … when we first started it was definitely about the sisterhood,” Murray said of the first event held in 2008. Their goal each year has been to honor a mixture of actresses who’d had success over the years, those who were having breakout years, and women finding success behind the scenes.

Though there have been many notable moments over the last 15 years, the very first luncheon sticks out in Murray’s mind. Why? Ledisi brought the house down with her rendition of “Yesterday.”

“She ad-libbed some of the lyrics and said, ‘My hips or my size is not the same anymore,’ and the whole room responded and was like, ‘Girl …,’ ” Murray recalled, noting that everyone from actresses Ruby Dee and Diahann Carroll to Jada Pinkett Smith was on their feet. “It was a reminder that these women we’ve loved on screen are ultimately just women and human beings with emotions.”

Rae’s speech at the 10th anniversary luncheon is also one of Murray’s favorite moments. “I loved her speech. It was just perfect,” she said, recalling the year they honored actresses Aja Naomi King, Yara Shahidi, Janelle Monae and Rae. “That year kind of felt like it was about the new class. Although we had been doing it for 10 years and you would have thought we should honor all legends, that year we pivoted. But that was five years ago and look where Issa Rae [and the rest of the honorees are] now.”

One of the most impactful moments came during the 2014 event, when Lupita Nyong’o used her speech to respond to a fan letter from a girl who marveled that the Oscar winner was “really lucky to be this Black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight.” The girl was considering bleaching her skin until she saw Nyong’o on the screen.

“My heart bled a little when I read those words. I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Color Purple were to me,” Nyong’o told the audience. After she recalled experiencing a similar moment of not feeling beautiful, the actress concluded: “I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade to that beauty.”

Nyong’o’s speech set the room, and the internet on fire. “What’s kind of cool is, she went on to write a book inspired by that speech,” Murray said of Nyong’o’s children’s book, Sulwe

Poet Maya Angelou once wrote, “I come as one, but I stand as 10,000.” When you’re inside the room during Essence‘s Black Women in Hollywood Awards, you feel those words come to life.

Britni Danielle is the Senior Culture Editor for Andscape. A die-hard Lakers fan, she can't wait for the day they win one more championship than the Boston Celtics.