With a mission to uplift, empower and inspire black women -- and acknowledge and celebrate their contributions and achievements -- Essence magazine launched a private event in 2007 to do what broader Hollywood wasn’t. Known as the “Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon,” it was envisioned by the publication’s editor-in-chief Vanessa De Luca to be a function where some of the most cherished people in the Tinseltown were honored. Nine years later, when the event is held Thursday against a backdrop of the #OscarsSoWhite conversation, its importance cannot be understated De Luca said.
#OscarsSoWhite: Full coverage of the boycott and Hollywood's reaction
“As we see with all the controversy surrounding Oscar nominations this year, we often find ourselves disappointed by the representation and diversity, or lack thereof, in Hollywood,” she said. “There's a level of frustration, and so the antidote to all of that is to have a space where our contributions to the craft are celebrated and recognized.”
This year’s event, held at the Beverly Wilshire and to be televised on OWN Saturday, will honor three black female trailblazers. “Black-ish” star Tracee Ellis Ross will receive the Fierce and Fearless Award while entertainment lawyer Nina Shaw will take home the Lincoln Power Award. Additionally, multi-talented producer, director and actress Debbie Allen will be honored with the Legend Award. They join a long list of former honorees including Oprah Winfrey, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Cicely Tyson and Lupita Nyong’o.
Ross, who has been outspoken about the struggles of women, black and otherwise, in the industry said the honor from a magazine whose cover she’s graced a number of times is less about her as an individual. Rather, the award and luncheon are important for the broader collective, “for a lot of the same reasons that the magazine is so important,” she said.
“So we can see our strength and beauty and depth and joy and texture and importance and so that others can see it too,” she said. “So that the conversation and beliefs and understanding can evolve. This luncheon is an opportunity to empower and remind the next generation and all of us that we are connected, that we are the same and also wonderfully different and unique.”
The event has come to be known as one of the most high profile leading up to the Academy Awards. Confirmed attendees include Winfrey, Shonda Rhimes, Oscars producer Reginald Hudlin and Oscars host Chris Rock, among others. Grammy-nominated singer Leon Bridges will perform.
“You’re basically surrounded in a room full of your peers, people who are working alongside you and striving for a more diverse Hollywood,” said De Luca. “Just to see that camaraderie and support of one another is a really special thing.”
Considering that “Black Women in Hollywood” championed diversity long before the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, the magazine’s entertainment editor Cori Murray says the current conversation is a benefit for the people they will uplift.
“What makes it extra special this year is that it's a [bigger] platform for people who are not being acknowledged elsewhere and [for people to be acknowledged by] a wider audience,” Murray said. “[The fact that more people are talking diversity], for us, is a reminder and confirmation of what we’ve already been doing and the pride we have in continuing to do this. It just underscores our passion and why we matter.”
The pages of Essence have often been a safe space for black women, and men, in Hollywood. In fact, before Henson was the sassy Cookie on “Empire” or Davis was Annalise Keating on “How to Get Away With Murder” or Kerry Washington was Olivia Pope on “Scandal,” they all were lauded by the magazine for their talents. The mainstream is just now catching on, De Luca said.
“There is no shortage of talent among African American women and men in this industry, and seeing people like Taraji, Viola and Kerry ascend to where they are is proof of that,” she said. “The fact that it takes so long, it seems, for the rest of the Hollywood community to acknowledge those contributions -- things that we’ve seen all along -- is kind of puzzling quite honestly.”
Murray agreed, highlighting that the magazine has uplifted Henson since one of her first major roles in the John Singleton-directed “Baby Boy.”
“Welcome to the bandwagon,” she said to mainstream outlets.
The “Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon” is also an opportunity for the magazine to provide new opportunities to up-and-coming filmmakers with its short film contest, now in its third year. The theme for this year’s contest is “#BlackGirlMagic through the lens of the black family.”
Murray said the winner will be announced during the luncheon, a chance for them to meet and mingle with industry insiders that may be able to assist them in next steps.
With the event airing as a special on OWN this year, and the red carpet streaming live at essence.com, De Luca hopes audiences, particularly black women, will continue to be inspired by the honorees and others in attendance. That is the ultimate objective every year, she said.
“We feel that it's important that other people get to see how we’re making contributions, not just in front of the camera, but behind it as well,” she said. “If you see someone else [who looks like you] doing it, then you know that’s something you can do too.”
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