Though the starlets walking the red carpet at Essence magazine’s Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon brought plenty of the previously promised pre-Oscar glam, it was solidarity and sisterly support that took center stage at the main event. “It’s really just a girl power luncheon,” said former Friday Night Lights star Jurnee Smollett. “It’s an opportunity for all of us to celebrate each other, and give each other a bunch of hugs. We say, ‘I love your work, continue what you’re doing, and I’m supporting you.'”
EW was on the scene as Octavia Spencer, Paula Patton, Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, Kerry Washington, and Pam Grier were honored for their various achievements at the fifth annual luncheon, which also boasted a Whitney Houston tribute led by her Sparkle costar, Jordin Sparks.
Of course, much of the talk at this year’s luncheon centered on this weekend’s upcoming Academy Awards, and the influence The Help has had in providing meatier roles for black women. Breakthrough Performance winner Spencer, who was introduced by her co-stars Viola Davis and Emma Stone, told EW that she’s still soaking it all in. “I’m just taking it in, and thrilled to be in the room with these beautiful women – the women who represent what we do,” she said. “I’m honored. [There are] quite a few Oscar nominees! It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Davis introduced Spencer as the woman who can combine the “emotional punch with the classic Spencer sass,” and Spencer quickly backed up those comments with her endearing mix of humility and self-deprecation. She tearfully spoke of her struggle to find solid roles as a black actress and paid homage to fellow honoree Grier, but then managed to fit in a very well-received wisecrack aimed at another honoree, Patton. “You would not believe that Paula and I have the same trainer,” she said. “I think he’s spending a lot more time with Paula.”
Patton, who was introduced by Precious director Lee Daniels as the woman who made him question his sexuality, was particularly sentimental as she accepted her Shining Star Award. Patton praised Essence for its work in celebrating black artists, and spoke of her responsibility to help struggling black actresses. “I slipped through a crack in the door,” she said. “It’s my responsibility to hold that door open.”
The happy tears continued to flow as ABC exec Anne Sweeney presented Rhimes with a shiny, Disney-approved tiara for her Visionary Award. Rhimes’ latest leading lady and Vanguard Award winner, Washington, thanked the celebrated producer for the opportunity to star in the upcoming ABC series Scandal, but also mentioned the numerous black actresses that didn’t get the coveted part. “They hugged me and supported me,” she said. “[They said] if the show is a success, we all get to do more.”
Finally, everyone rose to their feet as Richard Roundtree introduced the queen of ’70s blacksploitation, Pam Grier, for the Legend Award. Grier reflected on her early years as an actress, saying that while filming iconic movies like Foxy Brown, she was unable to use a stunt double — because there were no black female stunt doubles. She thanked modern writers like Grimes, “because without the writer, we don’t exist,” and ended the ceremony on a sentimental note. “You’ve all been so generous to me,” she said. “I think that’s who we are.”