This commentary was originally published on ESSENCE.com on February 27, 2014.
If you’re anything like me, you were probably entranced by Oprah’s Next Chapter three years ago. Her panel discussion on the thoughts of leading African-American women in Hollywood — featuring Viola Davis, Phylicia Rashad, Alfre Woodard and Gabrielle Union — was an eye-opener for many. However here at ESSENCE, it is a premise we are all too familiar with. Oprah’s piece was inspired by ESSENCE’s annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, where she herself was an honoree this year. Oprah was touched by this tribute, but she also blown away by Gabrielle’s provocative speech during our event. She told her truth — being honest about the fierce competition between African-American actresses in Tinseltown and how even she got caught up in the drama. She shared during the program that it wasn’t until an intervention from actress A.J. Johnson (her life coach) that she decided to make a change. It was an honest revelation, and I’m proud of her being brave enough to share her story with others.
I can personally tell you that, while Hollywood still often proves to be a challenging landscape for Black female actors seeking an outlet for their talents in television and film, ESSENCE’s annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon provides a welcoming space, a place where the contributions of Black women to the Hollywood community are both validated and celebrated. In February 2013, we honored Quvenzhané Wallis, Union, Mara Brock Akil, Naomi Harris, Woodard and Winfrey. Everyone who’s anyone in Black Hollywood wants to be there, but not just to see and be seen. This event is about more than that. BWIH is that one time of year during Oscar season when Black Hollywood gathers to recognize its own, and where you get to see the diversity and depth of Black talent in all its glory.
There’s a kinetic energy that crackles through the Crystal Ballroom of the Beverly Hills Hotel, where the event has taken place ever since its inception six years ago, and it is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Celebs line up for their red carpet moment, but not before stopping to share a hug with a fellow actor, or to compliment an up-and-coming star on her choice of footwear or to perform a quick glam check on someone else in line to make sure every hair is in place. Squeals of recognition and excitement rise above the din of the paparazzi clicks, as friends who haven’t seen each other in months, or years, are reunited.
But the real magic happens once everyone takes a seat in the ballroom and the program begins. Honorees receive their awards from a fellow colleague in the industry. These introductions often reveal special moments they’ve shared with those being honored, like the story of the screen vet who took the Hollywood newbie under her wing, reminding her to make time for a personal life while she pursued her dreams. The audience is then treated to a video tribute for the honoree, a virtual highlight reel of outstanding performances and stirring words from friends and fellow artists who testify to the importance of this moment, and the significance of their contribution. Once an honoree at last gets her moment on stage, the speeches go well beyond smiles and simple thank-yous. Honorees often use this moment to speak their truth — about career peaks and valleys, and how meaningful it is to be recognized by a room of your peers. Indeed, Gabrielle’s speech was so profound that the entire room fell silent as she chronicled her challenges with acceptance in Hollywood, her competitiveness, and how she — ultimately — has evolved to embrace her fellow actresses instead of seeing them as the enemy.
Speaking to Gabrielle about her speech, she told us, “ESSENCE has been a home for me since before I was in the pages or on the cover. It’s always inspired me in a thousand different ways. You gave me such a huge platform to speak my truth and I’m glad it was within the ESSENCE family and it has now grown.”
No words I can write can do justice to how emotionally moving and life transforming these speeches can be. That these artists feel comfortable enough to express themselves so freely and intimately, in this age of hyper-speed texts and tweets, is a true testament to the trust they have in the ESSENCE brand. That bond, that connection, can’t be fabricated. The whole ESSENCE family and I are so proud to be a part of this life-transforming experience.
I can’t wait to see how we’ll top this one next year!
Vanessa K. Bush is now the Editor-in-Chief of SSENCE.