Academy Award-nominated actress Lupita Nyong’o, Ava DuVernay, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, and more were honored at this year’s seventh annual Essence Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon in a beautiful event that took place at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Thursday. Oprah Winfrey, Kerry Washington, Spike Lee, and more were in attendance at this year’s celebration, which packed an emotional punch as honorees spoke of personally struggling with finding their place in the world. Read on to find out what the winners had to say in their acceptance speeches below:
When accepting the award for Best Breakthrough Performance, Nyong’o talked about growing up feeling like she wasn’t beautiful because her skin was so dark. Recently, she received a letter from a little girl, who told the budding actress that she believes her to be “lucky to be this black and this successful in Hollywood.” Audible murmurs were exchanged among audience members as Lupita went on to say that the little girl had confessed she was about to go through the process of lightening her skin until she saw the actress, who was dark like she was. “I’m honored to be a symbol of hope to others like the women I used to watch made me feel. I hope my presence on screen leads other little girls on a similar journey [to] feel the validation of your own beauty inside and out.”
Actress and playwright Danai Gurira, who followed Nyong’o’s speech, joked about how she feels like Essence aims to make all of its invited guests cry, before presenting Seventh Grade director Stefani Saintonge with this year’s inaugural Discovery Award. “I’m already emotional and we’re only 30 minutes in!” exclaimed Gurira. “I was here last year and wept all my makeup off.”
The 26-year-old Saintonge kept her acceptance speech short and sweet as she spoke of being amazed to sit with everyone currently in attendance. “I just have an itty-bitty film, but I’m here with you all — I’m starstruck, honestly,” said Saintonge, who wrapped up her speech by saying she feels like Hollywood is in the midst of a black film movement and that she’s excited to be a part of it.
While Nyong’o’s speech may have left some guests teary-eyed, there was not a dry eye in the room after Lee Daniel’s The Butler actor David Oyelowo and Scandal‘s Kerry Washington literally bowed in worship as they presented “Queen Ava DuVernay” with this year’s Visionary Award. The publicist-turned-director began her acceptance speech by telling everyone that this is always her favorite event of the year, before addressing her 8-year-old niece, Mali, in the audience.
“I hope you remember this room and all these wonderful women around you for when you need this memory,” DuVernay told her niece.
This year’s Essence luncheon also paid tribute to the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Clarence Williams III, Denise Nicholas, Diahann Carroll, Dr. Maya Angelou, Jim Brown, and Nichelle Nichols were all honored, though Brown, Nichols, and Carroll were the only three in attendance to accept the medals given out by directors Tonya Lewis Lee and Spike Lee.
“We celebrate you for your extraordinary impact on black people and on people across the world,” Lee said as he adorned the three with the medals.
Finally, Oprah Winfrey took the stage along with Sidney Poitier, who became the first black person to win an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1963, to honor Cheryl Boone Isaacs with this year’s Trailblazer Award. Despite Hollywood’s big night only days away, Boone Isaacs, who is the first black president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, took time out of her busy schedule to attend the Essence Luncheon and accept the award.
Boone Isaacs spoke of being a little girl and dreaming of doing great things in Hollywood, but also said that in all her dreaming, she never could have imagined that one day she would be where she is today. She also talked about actress Hattie McDaniel becoming the first African-American to win an Academy Award for her role as Mammie in Gone With the Wind in 1939.
“That night, Hattie had to sit in the back of the auditorium,” said Boone Isaacs. “But because of people like her, on Sunday night, I’ll be sitting front and center.”