Iman was celebrated for her career in the fashion industry, but she called recognition for her philanthropy on behalf of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo the “highest honor” of her life. Herbie Hancock highlighted his efforts to put jazz education in New Orleans public schools. The focus on Cicely Tyson was not just on her big-screen roles but also on her commitment to inspiring young people (her best advice: “You must know your craft”).
What distinguishes the honors from everyday programming on the network that so many love to hate? On the red carpet, April Woodard of BET News told The Root, “This show celebrates people who don’t necessarily make headlines,” adding, “If you don’t see this type of thing, you can’t be this type of thing.”
According to Stephen Hill, president of programming, music and specials for BET, the program “has much more in common with Black Girls Rock [Awards] than the BET Awards. It’s about celebrating African Americans for contributions beyond just dancing and singing.”
But the audience will likely wonder, why can’t BET do this all the time? Sure, it’s an entertainment network, but the event should put to rest any doubts about whether it’s possible to merge fun and meaning. Despite heavy discussion of substantive social issues, it didn’t turn into a PBS special — there were jokes from Cedric the Entertainer and Jamie Foxx; and host Gabrielle Union told us on the red carpet, “I have 11 outfit changes!” During the ceremony, she coyly acknowledged each gown change for the audience. And no one was bored. Performances by Trey Songz and Guy and a Teena Marie tribute by Marsha Ambrosius had the audience dancing.
In his introduction of Tyson, Tyler Perry explained his take on the significance of the event: “If no one calls you on your birthday, you make yourself a cake. If we don’t celebrate our successes, no one else will.” If the honors are any indication, it’s possible that BET is starting to get it.
The special will premiere on Feb. 21 at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. CDT).
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributor to The Root.