It was all that and then some, as Essence hosted its 6th annual Black Women in Hollywood Awards Luncheon on Thursday, honoring Oprah Winfrey, Alfre Woodard, Gabrielle Union, Mara Brock Akil, Naomie Harris, and 2013 Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis.
Held at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the event took place as the stars were aligning for the upcoming Academy Awards, and brought out such A-listers as Naomi Campbell, Kelly Rowland, Common, Blair Underwood, and Miguel, who performed during the lunch. By far the most anticipated invitee of the hour was Winfrey, who arrived with a handful of girls from her South Africa school, and received the Power Award for her work in the entertainment business.
“She’s a complete one-off – I think that’s why she’s a phenomenon,” actor David Oyelowo, who plays her son in the upcoming film The Butler, and presented the award, tells theGrio. “A bit like Michael Jackson or Elvis, she will not be repeated. It was a case of being born in the right place at the right time with the right talent and the right blessing. And that’s why, to have her here – for me personally to know her – it’s just incredible.”
The annual ceremony began in 2008, and serves as a tribute to high-profile women in the industry who defy both gender and racial barriers. Past honorees include Octavia Spencer, Pam Grier, Halle Berry, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, and Ruby Dee. Many spoke to the significance of the occasion.
“We still live in a world where black women in this country are marginalized,” Oyelowo observes. “I hope we will get to the point where events like this are almost unnecessary. That day is not today, so I’m glad it’s happening…Women have less opportunities because a lot of the decisions are made by men, and it can sometimes be an all boys’ club. But that is changing with every day, with every woman who is determined to take her place her forward.”
Writer-Producer Akil, who was given the Visionary Award for her work on television shows and films like The Jamie Foxx Show, Sparkle, Moesha and Girlfriends, concurred.
“Essence magazine was there because our images were not included in print,” she remarks. “And it’s Oscar week, often times our presentation at the large ball is not there. What I love about it is that they stopped whining and did something to honor and really fills our cup to keep us going. It’s like being at the gas station – you get a full tank when you come.”
For Union, who received the Fierce & Fearless Award, the honor tapped into a personal spectrum of her life, one she says she’s been improving upon for some time.
“We live in a town where you are rewarded for pretending, and no one encourages you to be your real authentic self,” the actress says, noting that her own “ego” and “pride” used to be setbacks when she started out in Hollywood.
“Around the time I got divorced, I started talking to my girlfriend and she challenged me: ‘Do you want to just keep functioning and dysfunctioning, or do you actually want to be happy at any point in your life? Cause you need to do the work,’” Union recalls. “So, part of being fearless is committing that you don’t have all the answers, you might have gotten it wrong, and you need to do better – you deserve better. So to be recognized for that journey and evolution in my life feels damn good.”
The actress’ Think Like A Man co-star Michael Ealy further elaborated on what he believes sets Union apart.
“She has the ability to be sexy and smart…which is not always there,” Ealy says.
Wallis, who made history this year as the youngest Academy Award nominee for Best Actress in Beasts of the Southern Wild, came to the soiree with her mother, and was honored with the Breakthrough Award. The 9-year-old admitted it was mom who picked out her purse and dress for the occasion, and would similarly select her attire for the Oscar ceremony on Sunday. She described the whole awards experience as being “awesome,” and said that she still couldn’t believe she was going.
Asked how she would celebrate later, she added, “I’ll be eating crawfish whenever I get back home.”
Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @CourtGarcia.