Passion, politics and Prince: How the BET Awards captured a moment

Jennifer Hudson performs during Sunday's BET Awards
(Matt Sayles / Invision / AP)

The list of things you’ll encounter when watching the BET Awards and no other awards show is a long one, and of course it begins with black people speaking without interference to one another on national television.

In the era of #OscarsSoWhite, it was a beautiful thing, indeed, to see actor Jesse Williams accept the cable network’s Humanitarian Award on Sunday with a fiery but composed speech about police violence that pointed to “this invention called whiteness,” then reminded viewers that “the burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander.”

Stop for a second and try to imagine that kind of language — even language half as vivid or lucid — making it to air on the Grammy Awards, or the Golden Globes, or the American Music Awards.

Give up yet?

Jesse Williams accepts the Humanitarian Award.
Jesse Williams accepts the Humanitarian Award.
(Matt Sayles / Invision / AP )

Williams wasn’t alone in bringing election-year politics to the 16th annual BET Awards, broadcast live from the Microsoft Theater as the capstone to the weekend’s BET Experience festival at L.A. Live.

Accepting the prize for actress, “Empire’s” Taraji P. Henson warned people who “don’t think he gonna win” — it was clear she meant presidential candidate Donald Trump — to “think again.” Later, after describing a daily reality “too appalling to put into words,” BET chief Debra Lee advocated explicitly for gun control, saying, “We are tired of the devastating effect that guns have on our community.”

Even Tracee Ellis Ross, who hosted the show for the second time with her “black-ish” costar Anthony Anderson, got in the act, urging viewers to register to vote.

As usual, though, this year’s BET telecast distinguished itself from its more frivolous competitors in other ways as well.

It offered rare opportunities to watch female artists playing (not just singing) their own music, as in performances by Alicia Keys, who built her song “In Common” from the ground up using keyboards and a drum machine, and Chloe x Halle, two teenage Beyoncé proteges who accompanied themselves on guitar in their spacey pop-soul track “Drop.”

Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar perform on Sunday's show.
Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar perform on Sunday’s show.
(Matt Sayles / Invision / AP )

Beyonc herself opened the show with an unannounced — and characteristically fierce — rendition of her song “Freedom” that featured a guest verse by Kendrick Lamar.


More remarkably, the production managed to pay tribute to a recently fallen musical idol with real feeling — something any experienced awards-show watcher might have thought impossible.

Here the honoree was Prince, whose legacy was handled indelicately only last month on the Billboard Music Awards, where Madonna sang a shaky “Nothing Compares 2 U” that epitomized the hollow pageantry of its kind.

Yet BET got it right in a handful of tributes scattered throughout Sunday’s nearly four-hour show: Backed by the Roots, Bilal ventured deep inside “The Beautiful Ones,” taking his time to reach the emotional extremes that Prince famously explored.


Sheila E was as lively as could be in a medley of “Housequake,” “U Got the Look” and “The Glamorous Life,” the hit song Prince wrote for her back when they were musical partners in the mid-1980s.

And Jennifer Hudson and Maxwell sang the stuffing out of “Purple Rain” and “Nothing Compares 2 U,” respectively — the latter even changing some of the song’s lyrics to reflect the impact Prince made on his life.

“It’s been seven hours and 66 days since you took your music away,” Maxwell sang, referring to the date Prince was found dead.

Earlier in the show, comedian Dave Chappelle invoked that day as well as he described the “rich legacy of this remarkable genius that we are all so proud of.” And that “we” seemed to have something to do with how warmly the BET Awards celebrated Prince on Sunday.


The production wasn’t singling him out as some unknowable specimen. It was treating him like family.

FULL COVERAGE: BET Awards 2016 »

Twitter: @mikaelwood