Essence on Thursday held its 12th Black Women in Hollywood luncheon — an annual ceremony that recognizes four of Hollywood’s brightest black actresses — on a morning clouded by Jussie Smollett’s arrest after allegedly staging his own assault. (Smollett’s attorney has maintained his client’s innocence, and the actor posted bail before returning to the set of his Fox show “Empire” late in the day.)
Honoree Jenifer Lewis was the only person to remark on the news, and she did so in her trademark dramatic fashion.
“I was asked on the carpet so many times, ‘What do you think, Ms. Lewis?’” she began. “I said, ‘I have no comment. Today is a day to celebrate. But this is what you will be hearing tomorrow.’
“Before you lie to us,” she began to sing. “Remember Rosa sat on that bus. Before you tell your tale, remember Mandela sat in that jail. Before you do anything, remember Dr. Martin Luther King. Before you connive and steal, I dare you to google Emmett Till.
“Before another dawn after this mess,” she continued soberly. “Before another dawn, and I speak to everyone, remember whose shoulders you stand on.”
The luncheon, hosted by Kelly Rowland, was held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. In addition to Lewis, Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall and KiKi Layne were honored.
Former Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth introduced “The Hate U Give” star Stenberg, who spoke directly to the room of black women.
“I want to take today to express gratitude for the legacy of women I come from who have stored the richest learnings in their bodies and passed them down through their blood and their mentorship,” she said. “I thank you for the gift of your eternal guidance, the sway in your walk that I have learned to mimic and then embody and the divinity that runs through your veins that I am so grateful to inherit.”
Oscar nominee Regina King introduced her “If Beale Street Could Talk” costar Layne with tears in her eyes.
“In so many ways, I feel like KiKi could really be my daughter,” she said. “The honesty that she brings to her performance is what makes actors so good at their jobs... It means the world to me to be a part of her artistic journey.”
“People ask me all the time how has all of this been, my whole life is changing and it’s really exciting, I’m so very thankful, but it’s also extremely terrifying,” said Layne, choking back tears. “This award, in addition to showing me who is already around me, it also reminds me of who has come before and all of the people who have sacrificed so I can be here, days away from my first Academy Awards ceremony representing a James Baldwin adaptation.”
Sanaa Lathan introduced Hall, whom she first met on the set of 1999’s “The Best Man.” She also teared up as she described Hall as a “consistent and unconditional friend.”
Hall, who infused her speech with her signature humor, described her career as “consistent,” but likened it to a slow-filling bathtub.
“I never had a quantum leap that was overnight, but there’s so much that you learn in the journey, and so I’m grateful for that.”
“Dreamgirls” stars Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine introduced Lewis, playfully mocking her dramatic manner of speaking and riffing off the teleprompter.
“Thirty-five years,” said Ralph, gesturing at both Devine and Lewis. “If I needed a kidney...”
“She would die,” said Devine. They were also joined onstage by Lewis’ adopted daughter Charmaine.
Before mentioning Smollett, Lewis revealed her tough journey to the spotlight, which included growing up in poverty and battling depression, sex addiction and mental illness.
“My greatest achievement was growing to be this happy,” she said. “My greatest achievement was growing to care. … My greatest achievement is this child. I did something.
“How did little Jenny Lewis touch bliss? Well guess what I did, I looked in the mirror and took responsibility for every choice I had made, was going to make and was making at that second. Stop pointing the finger at others, and that includes this administration. You take care of what’s right in front of you and make a difference in this world. Are we clear?”