It’s an exciting time for black women in Hollywood for a variety of reasons, chief among them is that they are getting the proper amount of love proportionate to the amazing and valuable work they are doing in film and television. With award season in full swing, we’ve seen black women ascend to their proper place in the pecking order. Case in point: Tracee Ellis Ross won a Golden Globe for her work on Black-ish and recently, Viola Davis became the most nominated black woman in Oscars history. Now Essence magazine is honoring the new vanguard of young black women working in film and television, demanding our attention in fresh and inviting ways.
For Essence’s 10th annual Black Women in Hollywood event, they have chosen to honor Janelle Monáe, Yara Shahidi, Issa Rae, and Aja Naomi King. And while I certainly want to talk about these special women, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a proper spotlight to the event itself. Sadly, this is one damn exciting event I’d never heard about before today. Am I the only one who’s been largely unaware of the Black Women In Hollywood event for 10 years?
The event, as explained in an Essence press release, has “paid homage to our modern image-makers — both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.” Over the last 10 years, Essence has made it a point of pride and necessity to bring attention to those black women who have either been mentioned in passing or barely recognized for their critical, incredible work. Previous honorees include (there’s a ton of big names here, guys): Oprah Winfrey, Lupita Nyong’o, Ava DuVernay, Halle Berry, Viola Davis, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Angela Bassett, Queen Latifah, Naomie Harris, Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Jennifer Hudson and so many more. Ten years of excellence awarded, rightfully so, and frankly, I think it’s high time everyone started focusing on this event.
For Rae and Shahidi, who star in Insecure and Black-ish, respectively, these women are navigating contemporary issues centered around being a modern black woman in America. How do they handle passive-aggressive racism in the workplace and at school? How do they achieve their professional goals? What are they passionate about? In what ways are they defined and not defined by the color of their skin? They have each succeeded in creating their characters through incredible performances embraced by audiences of varying ages, genders and racial demographics. It’s not too much of a stretch to understand why they are being honored.
The same goes for Monáe. Monáe has been making the rounds this award season thanks to her stellar performances in Moonlight and Hidden Figures. In Moonlight, Monáe plays the girlfriend of a local drug dealer, yet she’s nothing like the stereotype you might initially think of. Monáe’s character, Teresa, is caring, engaged, affectionate. She is on equal ground with her boyfriend, Juan, rather than a punching bag or a careless love interest. In Hidden Figures, Monáe is a woman working at NASA. She dreams of becoming a rocket scientist; her narrative in the film concerns her fight to attend night classes to get the required education to apply for a higher position in the field.
And King? Well, King’s been leaving audiences stunned on ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder and recently broke through in The Birth of A Nation. While the film itself may have been steeped in controversy, King’s performance was consistently remarked upon as a brave and laudable one. In Murder, as Michaela Pratt, King gives an accurate portrait of a nuanced queen bee. Michaela may have been tough to warm to, but in reality, appreciating King (and maybe falling in love with her a bit too) came naturally because her talent is so effusive.
All things considered, it’s not difficult to see why these four women would be honored at such an amazing event as the Essence Black Women In Hollywood event. The crazy thing is, despite these women currently thriving in our conversations around groundbreaking women of color and the work they are doing, how are we — the pop culture consciousness at large — somehow not talk about the event itself in greater detail? This is a watershed moment for Monáe, Shahidi, Rae and King; let’s honor them and make sure we recognize the brilliant efforts of Essence in the process.
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