BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – “This is historic!” a photographer yelled as he surveyed the image before him — Sidney Poitier in the centre, Spike Lee to his right, Tyler Perry to his left and more than two dozen other black men in Hollywood, from Blair Underwood to Omar Epps, huddled tight around the legend, posing with a purpose.
“We made it!” shouted out one participant as the men broke out into knowing laughter.
It was a night of many emotions as Essence magazine, known for celebrating black women, held its first ceremony honouring the achievements of African-American men in Hollywood in the days leading up to Sunday’s Oscar ceremony. Poitier gave a moving tribute to the future and the past, Lee delivered a strong rebuke to what he called Hollywood’s exclusionary policies and Perry — who owns his own studio — implored blacks to break out on their own instead of waiting for an open door from the industry.
“If they close the door then break a hole in the freaking window,” said Perry to applause. “Find another way … there is more than one path.”
The Wednesday event, held at Perry’s tony mansion, was conceived to mark what has been a stellar year for black filmmakers in cinema, and the black men behind those achievements: Malcolm Lee directed the box-office hit “The Best Man,” Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is up for nine Academy Awards and Forest Whitaker executive produced the acclaimed “Fruitvale Station” and starred in the box-office smash “The Butler.”
All were lauded for their success at “Black Men in Hollywood” dinner, which singled out Spike Lee, Malcolm Lee (who is Spike’s cousin), Perry and Poitier, who received the legend award.
Poitier, who was helped to the stage by Perry and received a standing ovation, thanked the intimate gathering of celebrities and industry insiders that included Jill Scott, Tiki Sumpter, Tracee Ellis Ross, Shemar Moore, John Singleton, David Oyelowo and more.
“I never in my life had such a warm reception,” said the actor, the first black man to win an Academy Award for best actor.
He noted the achievements of today’s crop of Hollywood stars, he recalled “a time when we gathered in a basement church” and cited black actors generations ago who did not get the same opportunities as those today, mentioning stars ranging from Paul Robeson to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to Ethel Waters and Dorothy Dandridge.
“We owe them so much more than we can pay,” said Poitier.
Spike Lee noted the achievements black filmmakers had enjoyed in 2013 but recalled a similar burst of success a decade ago and seeing it dwindle: “It can’t be another 10-year drought.”
He also cautioned about being too celebratory, declaring that blacks still were not among those at Hollywood studios who could green-light a film being made: “There’s a long fight that still has to happen.”
But Perry, who rose to success with his own brand of films that he self-financed, said blacks had to stop relying on whites in Hollywood to get their dreams made.
“Spike is right about nobody’s in the room,” Perry said. “But I never believed in being in the room. I believed in owning the room.”
He added that he and Lee would continue to have a “healthy debate” about the subject, to which Lee shouted out to laughter: “It’s your house!”
The event, which included dinner and a performance by singer Ledisi, was the prelude to Essence’s annual brunch honouring black women on Thursday.
Follow Nekesa Mumbi Moody at http://www.twitter.com/nekesamumbi