PASADENA, Calif. – The 49th Annual NAACP Image Awards brought together some of the country’s most beloved stars on Monday night, and I was honored to spend this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium with them.
The show, hosted by “black-ish” star Anthony Anderson, honored the achievements of people of color in television, film, music and more.
While A-listers Ava DuVernay, Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Daniel Kaluuya and Omari Hardwick won big, perhaps the greatest moment was witnessing the NAACP recognize the surviving 1968 Memphis sanitation workers with the prestigious NAACP Vanguard Award.
“It is a rare privilege for the NAACP to present our Vanguard Award to outstanding trailblazing individuals who gave voice and projected attention to the struggle for racial and economic justice,” said Leon W. Russell, chairman of the NAACP National Board of Directors.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of these history-making events, attending the awards brought me inspiration from not only Dr. King, but of the unsung heroes of Memphis. I am personally inspired by their individual and collective activism.
Activism appeared to be a collective theme at the awards this year as stars Kerry Washington, Ross, Lena Waithe, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Angela Robinson and Laverne Cox also shared a powerful message on behalf of the initiative Time’s Up, a movement against sexual harassment. The group said that black women had “always been on the front lines of change” and challenged viewers to “stand by us, stand for us, stand with us.”
To be in a room full of black creators – and for it to be on none other than Dr. King’s birthday – was an awe-inspiring experience.
Producer Will Packer took a dig at President Donald Trump’s recent comments about immigration as he accepted an award for “Girls Trip,” which won for outstanding film. “Sisters, especially the ones from Haiti and Africa, we love you as your brothers,” he said.
During the commercial break, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters stood up to introduce her guest, Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, and reminded the venue, “We’re gonna impeach Trump!”
The crowd applauded.
“black-ish” was the night’s biggest winner. The ABC hit was named Best Comedy Series and took acting honors for stars Ross and Anderson.
“It’s an extraordinary thing to be able to show what a beautiful black family looks like on television,” Ross said as the cast accepted the comedy series honor.
“Power” was named Best Drama Series and star Hardwick won for dramatic actor. Other winners included “Gifted” actress Octavia Spencer and “Empire” star Taraji P. Henson, who were both absent, and Kaluuya, who won for his leading role in “Get Out.”
Another arresting moment in the show came during singer Andra Day’s chilling performance of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Rapper Common joined her for their song “Stand Up for Something” and the whole audience rose to its feet. “Stand Up for Something,” from the movie “Marshall,” got them nominated for two awards – Outstanding Female Artist and Outstanding Duo, Group or Collaboration.
I could tell the anticipation is extremely high in “Black Hollywood” for the upcoming Marvel movie “Black Panther,” as its stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, Sterling K. Brown and Kaluuya were all in attendance. Many celebrities also took to the stage to promote the upcoming film.
A jubilant Ava DuVernay concluded the night, as she was presented with Entertainer of the Year at the ceremony. DuVernay lauded other black artists from the stage as she accepted her award, naming writers and directors such as Shonda Rhimes, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Kenya Barris and “Black Panther’s” Ryan Coogler.
“This is our time,” DuVernay said. “We can say we were here when all this gorgeous art was happening, and that we supported it – that we lifted each other up, that we did as Dr. King said we would do: Live the dream. We’re the dream.”
I was beyond honored to spend the nation’s most significant civil rights day of the year celebrating the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a room full of our community’s top creators and activists, while also celebrating and bringing awareness to the black renaissance of today.