Have you ever wished that you could sign up for a master class in black entertainment history? Well, that's what more than 200 actors, directors, showrunners and entertainment-industry notables received when they gathered in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Monday evening for the Paley Center for Media's Hollywood Tribute to African-American Achievements in Television.
The star-studded crowd—which spanned generations, from icons like Lou Gossett Jr. and Quincy Jones to younger stars like Alfred Enoch (How to Get Away With Murder) and Yara Shahidi (Black-ish)—was treated to a celebration of African-American TV achievements across genres that included music, sports, news or talk, drama and comedy. The event also commemorated the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as well as the 35th anniversary of BET.
The Paley Center celebration kicked off with a tribute to Diahann Carroll, who received a standing ovation when she took to the stage with her signature gracefulness to thank the audience. From there, guests were blessed with the opportunity to view hundreds of impressively curated excerpts from some of the most significant and memorable moments involving African Americans in television history, including an excerpt from the very first episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, videos of Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, and Soul Train footage. These clips took the audience on a collective trip down memory lane as attendees laughed, applauded and high-fived one another throughout the evening.
Presenter Keegan-Michael Key, who was responsible for some of the biggest laughs of the night, expressed gratitude for the artists who came before him: "We've come light years since the early days of television, and those of us who are lucky enough to do what we do can never forget the shoulders on which we stand," he said.
The takeaway from the evening was clear: Over the past 70 years, African Americans have made great strides in television that have resulted in a rich history worthy of appreciation and celebration, but as Tyler Perry put it, "We have plenty of stories we haven't shared yet."
The legendary Quincy Jones, who also received a standing ovation, reminisced about a time when you did not see faces of color on TV and remarked that it made his "soul smile" to think about all the young black men and women who are contributing to the industry today, including not only performers but also creators, writers and executives who work behind the camera. To them he offered this advice: "Have humility with your creativity and grace with your success. … Be brave and go for it."
Other presenters included Ava DuVernay, Brandy Norwood, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Debra Lee, Debra Martin Chase, Don Cheadle, Jerrod Carmichael, Regina King, Rick Fox, S. Epatha Merkerson, Terrence Howard and Tyra Banks.
Proceeds from the event will benefit the Paley Center's ongoing efforts to expand and preserve the Paley Archive's African-American collection, which chronicles seven decades of television content.
Akilah Green is a recovering Washington, D.C., lawyer-lobbyist-politico turned TV and film writer and producer living in Los Angeles. She currently works for Chelsea Handler’s Netflix talk show, Chelsea. She has also worked as a staff writer for Kevin Hart’s production company, HartBeat Productions, and as a consultant for Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO. In addition, she co-wrote and is producing Scratch, an indie horror-comedy feature film, and is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow Green’s adventures in La La Land on her blog, Twitter and Facebook.