"When black women are together, a sacred space can be conjured."
These words, spoken by Ava DuVernay by way of Oprah Winfrey, opened the ninth Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon hosted by Essence magazine. Held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in the week leading up to the Academy Awards, the Thursday afternoon event gathered some of the industry’s biggest names together to honor and embrace, as Winfrey said, "the magic of our sisterhood."
"The idea that we gather in this space to speak each other's name in praise and raise each other up in celebration, that's a divine moment," she said. "We all represent what's possible when we come together and realize ... we are the wisdom source for each other."
The event, recorded for an Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) special to air Saturday, attracted the likes of Shonda Rhimes, Oscars producer Reginald Hudlin, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and performers Zendaya and Nick Cannon to uplift and recognize three specific honorees. "Black-ish" star Tracee Ellis Ross received the Fierce and Fearless Award, entertainment lawyer Nina Shaw took home the Power Award and producer, director and actress Debbie Allen was honored with the Legend Award. They join a long list of former honorees including Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Cicely Tyson and Lupita Nyong’o.
Each honoree used his or her speech to highlight the peculiar experiences of black women in Hollywood. Many of their statements also touched on the current #OscarsSoWhite conversation the industry is having about diversity on screens large and small.
Shaw, whose clients have included Cannon, Nyong’o and Misty Copeland, implored celebrities to use their voices to question the men and women who represent them professionally.
"Your representatives work for you. You don't work for them," she said. "You have every right to demand more of us."
She suggested that celebrities pose "those uncomfortable questions" about the lack of diversity among the studio leadership, for example.
"And don't settle for 'we need to do better' as the answer," Shaw continued. "There must be real dialogue on how we intend to do better."
She went on to encourage women to hire other women and white men to hire people of color.
When Ross accepted her award, she teared up while sharing that she wasn’t supposed to be at the event because of issues with her voice. She said she'd recently woke up unable to talk.
"Not having a voice has been a very spiritual experience for me," the 43-year-old said. "I learned a lot and got clear in a way that I've never been clear before, but the thing that came to me was I am not the sound of my voice. I am me and I can be the same me without a voice."
But she said she mustered herself, got dressed in the car and made her way to the event because of how important she believes it is for women of color to come together.
"This room is filled with women that do not always get to recognize or feel how great and important we are," she said. "Joining each other here today reminds us that we must see our own strength, depth, beauty, joy, texture and importance so that others can see it too."
Allen, whose career has spanned theater, film and television, was honored last. The 66-year-old spoke about her upbringing and about breaking down a number of barriers.
"I was born into a physical world that had closed doors, brick ceilings, [and] white-only restaurants, dance studios, movie theaters, but the real world I was born into was a world of ideas, thoughts, love and dreams and prayers," she said. "That's the real world. That's the world that changes everything.”
She left the stage encouraging everyone in the room to make lasting connections with "something in your heart and in your mind," as a way to move forward as black women in the industry.
Check out the event Saturday at 10 p.m. EST/PST on OWN.
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