There are black celebrities, and then there are black history makers. At the BET Honors, held Saturday, Jan. 14, at Washington, D.C.'s Warner Theatre, it was the latter group that stole the show.
The red-carpet event delivered, as expected, appearances and performances by high-profile award show regulars: Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Rowland, Stevie Wonder and even Patti LaBelle took to the stage. But striking a tone appropriate for the celebratory but reflective mood of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, those who made substantive contributions to the black experience outside of Hollywood — Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou and surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen — were the evening's most celebrated guests. When it came to the first lady, the poet and the black trailblazers, the celebrities themselves were starstruck.
Obama was technically a presenter, but really a main attraction and honored guest. "We're very excited," BET President Debra Lee told The Root. "I invited her several times over the past year. She'd heard what a great event it was, and Dr. Sharon Malone, [Attorney General] Eric Holder's wife, told her what a great event it was … So when I saw her at the White House for the Kennedy Center Honors, I said, 'You know, you have to come to BET Honors,' and she said, 'Oh, I want to, I want to.' "
Seasoned host Gabrielle Union, emceeing the event for the fifth consecutive year, joked that the first lady's presence made her slightly nervous. "I'm excited that she's here. I do feel a little pressure to tell more appropriate jokes, but we'll see how that goes," she told us preshow.
Willow Smith, Cicely Tyson, Queen Latifah and Jill Scott welcomed Obama with a recitation of Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman." She received an extended standing ovation punctuated by audience shouts of "We love you, first lady!" when she took to the stage in a floor-length, one-shouldered crimson gown.
She was tasked with presenting the Literary Arts award to another audience favorite, Angelou. In highly personal remarks, she called the poet and author "my friend," "one of my heroes" and "an iconic, otherworldly figure." To honor Angelou, she said, "We must help others discover the greatness in themselves," adding, "she reminds us that we belong here … that each of us has a place in this world." Accepting her honor, the literary legend presented a poem.
Surviving Tuskegee Airmen Charles E. McGee and Roscoe Brown are, of course, the subjects of the soon-to-be-released film Red Tails. But it was a narrated video account of their real-life experience that inspired a standing ovation that lasted throughout their joint acceptance speech.
Colin Powell told The Root, "They are real heroes because of what they did so many years ago. They made the path for me to follow." McGee said he hoped the film would teach a lesson about overcoming adversity. And on the topic of the funding challenges associated with a film with an all-African-American cast, he said, "I would hope that we don't have to say black, white or whatever. It's an American story."
Big musical names in the building included Stevie Wonder, who was honored for Musical Arts (celebrities including Ledisi and Kelly Rowland told The Root they were honored to be in his presence), and Mariah Carey, who took home the Entertainment award (Patti Labelle sang "Hero" in tribute to her; husband Nick Cannon, better after a recent bout with kidney failure, presented it with baby Moroccan in tow).
Track-and-field coach Beverly Kearney was recognized with an award in the Education category for her perseverance in leadership. She coached the University of Texas at Austin track-and-field team to record-breaking victories after suffering a paralyzing car accident.
Performances by Rowland, Common, Anthony Hamilton, Jennifer Hudson and Wonder punctuated the announcements.
The effusive praise and celebratory tributes of the event were tempered only by a sense of urgency about the upcoming presidential election. BET's T.J. Holmes warned the audience about new voting restrictions. "Barriers are going back up … just in time for our president to face re-election. A coincidence, I'm sure," he said sarcastically, adding, "I want you to get ready, I want you to stay ready, and I want you to vote like your life depended on it."
Kearney got huge cheers for her comments about re-electing Barack Obama when she said, "We have to exercise our God-given right to greatness, and we have to exercise our constitutional right to vote. There's a man out there with an amazing vision, and he intends to finish what he started."
Two days before the annual observation of Martin Luther King's birthday, Wonder assessed the evening's tribute of black legends: "This would have made him proud."
The BET Honors is set to air on Monday, Feb. 13, at 9 p.m. EST on BET.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor at The Root.