Nine-year-old Oscar nominee Quvenzhane Wallis toted a plush, dog-shaped purse with jewelled handles as she rubbed shoulders with Oprah Winfrey and Alfre Woodard.
The star of best-picture contender Beasts of the Southern Wild was among the honourees Thursday at Essence magazine’s sixth annual Black Women in Hollywood awards luncheon.
Standing on a step so she could speak at the podium, Quvenzhane thanked God, Beasts director Behn Zeitlin and “my baby sitter that was on set”.
Quvenzhane is the youngest best-actress nominee in Oscar history and one of only 10 African-Americans ever recognised in the category.
Winfrey was teary-eyed as she took the stage after being introduced by the graduating class of her namesake Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.
“I am humbled by this day,” she said. “There’s nothing better than being honoured by your own.”
Essence President Michelle Ebanks said the afternoon’s honourees “are changing the very definition of power” with their presence in Hollywood.
Woodard said she always recognised herself in the pages of Essence and recalled that when she and actresses C.C.H. Pounder and Loretta Divine first arrived in Hollywood, “they didn't know what to do with (us)”.
“We were young and gifted and looking way black,” Woodard said. “And we still have our original noses!”
Actress Gabrielle Union moved the audience as she accepted the Fierce & Fearless award. Union said she had long pretended to be fierce and fearless but actually revelled in gossip and “took joy in people’s pain and tap-danced on their misery”. She said she posed for photos in such a way to “minimise my blackness” and didn’t speak out against racism in school or in Hollywood when she was younger.
“Real fearless and fierce women admit mistakes and work to correct them,” she said. “We stand up and we use our voices for things other than self-promotion. We don’t stand by and let racism and sexism and homophobia run rampant on our watch. Real fierce and fearless women celebrate and compliment other women and we recognise and embrace the notion that their shine in no way diminishes our light, and actually makes our light shine brighter.”
Actress Naomie Harris, who plays Eve Moneypenny in Skyfall, was among those touched by Union’s words.
“I’m in the place you were,” Harris said as she accepted the Shining Star award. “I feel as though I have travelled thousands of miles to actually listen to that speech, to learn, to be inspired and to be reminded of who I am.”
Writer-producer Mara Brock-Akil cried throughout her acceptance speech, saying, “All I ever wanted to do was tell our story.”
Other stars attending the luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel included Blair Underwood, Laila Ali, Star Jones, Jill Scott and Tracee Ellis Ross.
Grammy-winning singer Miguel performed his winning hit, Adore, and rapper-actor Common did an impromptu freestyle during a brief technical difficulty, working the names of the six honourees into a quick rap.