This year’s theme, in honor of the brand’s 50th anniversary, was a celebration of women owning, expanding and transforming the art of storytelling. The luncheon celebrated actress Lashana Lynch (Black Women In Hollywood Award Recipient); DGA nominated director and two-time Grammy Award-winning music video director Melina Matsoukas (Black Women in Hollywood Award Recipient); actress, comedian, director and producer Niecy Nash (Ford Vanguard Award Recipient); and the trailblazing cast and co-executive producer/director/writer of POSE Janet Mock, MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, Angelica Ross and Hailie Sahar (Black Women In Hollywood Award Recipients).
Alfre Woodard, Ava DuVernay, Billy Porter, Issa Rae and Kerry Washington served as presenters and award-winning musician, actress and television personality, Eve, hosted the event. Brittany Howard, lead vocalist and guitarist for the chart-topping, GRAMMY Award-winning band Alabama Shakes, performed a medley of funk, soul ballads from her solo album, Jaime.
Woodard presented Lynch with the first ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Award of the afternoon. Lynch graciously thanked her mother for being a powerful force of inspiration in her life. Speaking directly to her mother, she closed her speech by saying, “If I can be half the woman you are, I know I have succeeded. [Maria Rambeau] was a love letter to you and the hundreds and thousands of mothers who go above and beyond to raise their kids.” Her speech was met with a standing ovation by the tearful audience.
Rae presented the next award to Matsoukas, who candidly spoke about reclaiming her joy in the midst of injustice. Melina acknowledged Daughters of the Dust director, Julie Dash, as the “Black mother of cinema.” Melina also thanked her mother, Beyoncé, Rae and Lena Waithe for their contributions, not only to her life, but also for her success. To each of them, she proclaimed, “It is my honor to thank you today.”
Washington presented a special honorary tribute to the late iconic actress Diahann Carroll, who passed away last fall.
Porter stood proudly as he announced: “And the category is: Stand in Your Truth! None of us are free until we are all free. On this day, the conversation changes.” He was overcome with emotion and thanked ESSENCE for making a space for the LGBTQ community to be remembered and recognized before presenting Mock and the cast of POSE with their award. Mock’s words of hope, gratitude and affirmation filled the room. She stated: “It’s an honor to be in a space that celebrates and centers our stories. ESSENCE remains a vital intervention, choosing to see us, how we see ourselves, in a culture that rarely ever does. Thank you for seeing us.”
“Being an actress is what I do, but my who is to be of service to the world,” said Nash as she accepted the Vanguard Award presented by Ford. She spoke openly about her recent divorce, dispelling the family myth she inherited of being “nothing without a man,” publicly reclaiming her happiness and providing steps for everyone to do the same.
The invitation-only pre-OSCAR event was abuzz with Hollywood movers and shakers—from actresses to musicians, industry executives and more. Among the elite talent present were: