BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) — The annual Essence Black Women in Hollywood Award is a guarantee of big stars and lots of tears.
Thursday kept to tradition as Oprah Winfrey, Lupita Nyong’o, director Ava DuVernay and others presided over an emotional luncheon that gave awards and affirmations to standout black women including members of the cast of “Orange is the New Black,” actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw and actress-director Regina King.
“I promised my sister I was going to keep it together. I lied,” quipped a misty King — whose vast credits include “Southland,” “Shameless,” ”Boyz in the Hood,” ”Ray” and “Jerry McGuire” — as she accepted the Fierce and Fearless Award.
The Essence luncheon, which will be televised for the first time Saturday by the OWN network, has become one of Oscar week’s most prestigious events. It started eight years ago to recognize the achievements of black women — key in an industry where they are underrepresented in mainstream roles, from acting to directing. Most of the honorees shed tears, as did some in the audience.
One of last year’s honorees, Academy Award winner Nyong’o, came back this year to pay tribute to the black actresses of “Orange is the New Black,” which has been lauded for the rich roles for all kinds of women. It’s the first time Essence has honored a group instead of an individual.
As Emmy winner Uzo Aduba and castmates Laverne Cox, Lorraine Toussaint, Samira Wiley and Vicky Jeudy looked on, Danielle Brooks — who plays Tastee on the show — summed up why being singled out for the Vanguard award meant so much to them.
“It’s really challenging to be a ‘blacktress,'” said Brooks, who talked about the rejection black actresses often face. “There are not a lot of roles for us.”
She praised the creators of the show for allowing the women to explore complex characters and said she learned something as well: “We are enough just the way we are and don’t need to change for us.”
Mbatha-Raw, who had breakout roles last year in the period piece “Belle” and in the musical drama “Beyond the Lights,” was honored by “Selma” star David Oyelowo. He brought out his own toddler daughter, who is biracial, to thank Mbatha-Raw for presenting a positive image of biracial women.
Mbatha-Raw, who is British, acknowledged the challenges of being both black and white in Hollywood.
“I think I always felt, ‘Black Women in Hollywood’ — do I even qualify to be here?” she said, to which someone shouted “Yes!”
“To be embraced so joyously means so much to me,” she added.
She spoke of a harrowing experience of being mugged at gunpoint while filming “Beyond the Lights” and credited it for helping her live a more rewarding life.
“What it gave me was a sense of letting go of the fears that stop us from doing what I want to do,” she said.
King, who started in acting as a child on the sitcom “227” and has added directing to her resume, talked about the power of Essence and how as a child, it shaped her future, affirming that she could be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer: “I decided to be an actress so I can be all of those.”
DuVernay, whose “Selma” is nominated for best picture at Sunday’s Academy Awards, honored costume designer Ruth Carter with the Visionary Award.
Carter is nominated for her work on “Selma” this year. She said when she dressed Winfrey for “Lee Daniel’s The Butler,” Winfrey told her art was prayer, and God speaking through her. She thanked Winfrey for opening her eyes.
“I have been seeking a deeper spiritual connection all my life and I didn’t know I was already doing it,” she said.
Among those in attendance were John Legend and Common, who performed their Oscar-nominated song “Glory”; model Chanel Iman; “Selma” star Carmen Ejogo; and TV powerhouse Shonda Rimes.