Actress Tracee Ellis Ross, director Debbie Allen and entertainment attorney Nina Shaw were the 2016 honorees.
With #OscarsSoWhite claiming center stage this awards season, the annual Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon on Feb. 25 further underscored the spirit and power of diversity as honorees and celebrants vowed to continue the crucial dialogue and foster change.
Addressing the audience inside the Beverly Wilshire Hotel ballroom before lunch, Oprah Winfrey spoke briefly about creating more inclusion opportunities “for ourselves and each other. We all represent what’s possible. This is a divine moment to reflect and revel in each other’s achievements. And Essence has had the good sense to do this for nine years.”
The luncheon’s theme, “Power of Our Presence,” resonated throughout the afternoon as Essence’s 2016 honorees accepted their awards amid cheers and roaring applause. Entertainment attorney Nina Shaw received the Lincoln Power Award from two of her clients: newly named ABC Entertainment Group president Channing Dungey (the first black woman to head a major network) and TV personality/entrepreneur Nick Cannon. “Let’s turn our focus to solutions,” Shaw told the audience to cheers and applause. “We’re sitting on the precipice of what seems to be real change. Use your own power to seek that change.”
Picking up on the topic of change, a humorous and emotional Tracee Ellis Ross — recovering from laryngitis — emphasized that “the picture is changing and the template expanding because of us. Look in the mirror — we are inspiration.” Presenting the Fierce & Fearless Awardto the actress were Zendaya and her sister Rhonda Ross.
Reginald Hudlin, co-producer of the upcoming 88th Academy Awards, and award-winning television producer Shonda Rhimes presented the Legend Awardto actress/dancer/director Debbie Allen. Before Rhimes announced that Allen is producing and now also the fulltime director of Grey’s Anatomy (“because I got down on my knees pleading”), she described Allen as “a force of nature that blows through an environment and changes the landscape.”
“I’ve always worked to a purpose bigger than myself,” recalled Allen. “I wanted to replace Shirley Temple when I was little,” recalled Allen. “I saw the Oscars when I was a kid and wanted to see someone on there that was my complexion. You have to believe in things.”
Also spotted at the luncheon: 2016 Academy Awards host Chris Rock (taking photos with well-wishers), actor/director Nate Parker (Birth of a Nation), BET chairman/CEO Debra Lee, and actresses Anika Noni Rose, Megan Good and Thandie Newton. Grammy Award-nominated singer/songwriter Leon Bridges performed.