Utterly star studded is the only way to describe the Paley Center for Media’s Hollywood Tribute to African Americans in Television.
The red carpet was filled with television biggest names who all came out either as presenters or attendees. Tyra Banks, “Power’s” Cortney Kemp Agboh, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Ice-T & Coco, Erica Ash of “Survivor’s Remorse”, and RonReaco Lee, LaRoyce Hawkins of “Chicago PD” and “Scandal” star Joe Morton, joined by network mates including Alfred Enoch, of “How to Get Away With Murder” Marcus Scriber and Yara Shahidi from “Black-ish”.
Using the over 160,000 programs featuring African-American performance curated by the Paley Center, the evening opened by honoring the incomparable Diahann Carroll known primarily for her groundbreaking role as “Julia” in 1961 and has continued to grace screens ever since. Tyler Perry and Don Cheadle led the tribute to African-American television contributions followed by
Rick Fox and 50Cent who looked at Black accomplishment in sports broadcasting with a focus on the groundbreaking work of Stuart Scott.
According to “Extant” star Lou Gossett Jr., another legend in Black television who attended the tribute and is a long time supporter of the Paley Center, “diversity is almost top of the alphabet in show business. For so long we’ve been trying to get our stories on and now it’s become the thing to do. But I am glad we can get to know one another better through the arts.”
Aided by Anthony Anderson, “Empire’s” Terrence Howard turned the evenings focus toward African-American contributions to music, like the late Michael Jackson who’s Billie Jean video helped launch a fledgling network named MTV and concluded by honoring icon and musical genius Quincy Jones.
In his brief remarks Jones spoke about the days before television, reminding the audience Amos & Andy were white on radio, but had to be cast by Black actors on television. Jones, like many others in the room remember the days of the industry where people of color were very few and far between. Across his 50+ years in television Jones gave us the themes to “Sanford & Son”, “Austin Powers” and was the mind behind the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” now celebrating its 25th anniversary.
S. Epatha Merkerson and Regina King presented African-American contributions to drama from “I Spy” to “Dynasty” to “St. Elsewhere” and Tyler Perry’s “The Haves and the Haves Nots”.
With 16 seasons as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on “Law & Order”, Merkerson, has the achievement of playing the longest running African-American character on any primetime television show.
“Being here to honor who we are and what we’ve done in this business, showing our diversity, our history in the business is important,we have to celebrate that,” says Merkerson, “I’m honored to be here and also presenting alongside Regina, who I adore.”
Tyra Banks and Ava Duvernay took the stage leading the tribute to African-Americans in news and talk television, followed by Brandi and Mega producer Debra Martin Chase, who reflected back on BET’s contributions. In it’s 35th year of existence, BET is led by CEO Debra Lee, who has also served on the Paley Media Center board proudly since 1997.
Chase who has a new series premiering on the network in 2016 noted, “When I started this business there were very few people who looked like me producing and there’s still not enough. There’s not enough directors of color, women, writers, editors, you can kind of go down the list, so for those of us in the industry it’s important we try to help other people, bring in new people and help people we know to get jobs.”
Closing the evening on a comedic note was Keegan Michael Key who presented the comedy tribute. Television took our most prolific black comics out of the obscurity of the comedy clubs and placed them the homes of white America. Key, specifically cited Norman Lear and how is African-American led series like “The Jeffersons” always drew big ratings.
Like so many other areas of public American life, actors of color fought hard to be on television. Fought harder to rise above menial roles as cooks, gardeners and maids, to become directors, writers, producers and are still fighting to ensure blackness is fully represented, celebrated and African-Americn stories are shared with care and intentionality. The Paley Media Center Tribute was a vital reminder to all, that in the face of 70 years of tremendous success by African-Americans in Hollywood there is still much ground on which to blaze new trails.