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Image Awards honor black achievement in entertainment

PASADENA — Fifty-one years after the NAACP hosted the first Image Awards to celebrate the achievements of African-American artists and professionals who were largely overlooked by mainstream Hollywood, the awards ceremony remains the preeminent occasion where black excellence is recognized and honored.

In 2020, actors of color still remain largely overlooked by Hollywood. Earlier this year, only one black actor was nominated for an Academy Award – Cynthia Erivo for her role as Harriet Tubman.

At the 51st NAACP Image Awards, African-American entertainers and performers came out to celebrate their own. The event was broadcast live on Feb. 22 at the Pasadena Civic Center Auditorium.

NAACP Image Awards host Anthony Anderson (“Black-ish) opened the show, telecast on BET for the first time, with a monologue that took a shot at the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards and Hollywood’s other ceremonies that presented awards earlier in the year.

“Look at our audience tonight,” Anderson said. “So different from other award shows. We actually have black nominees.”

The big winner of the night was the courtroom drama “Just Mercy.” Snubbed by the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, the film received three NAACP Image Awards, outstanding motion picture, outstanding actor in a motion picture, Michael B. Jordan, and outstanding supporting actor, Jamie Foxx.

“Just Mercy” tells the story of attorney Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), who defended Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), an African-American man sentenced to death for the murder of a white 18-year-old girl, despite evidence proving his innocence.

Stevenson, whose memoir “Just Mercy” was the basis for the movie, joined the cast on stage to accept the Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture and reiterated the need to continue the fight for justice. Stevenson is founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment and racial inequality.

“We live in a nation with the highest rate of incarceration in the world,” Stevenson said. “We have a system of justice in the country that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty, than if you’re poor and innocent. We cannot stay silent about this reality. We’ve got to fight for the things that are important.”

The television comedy “Black-ish” was also a big winner, taking home seven awards including best TV comedy and outstanding actor in a TV comedy for host Anthony Anderson.

In accepting the award for outstanding actress in a comedy series, “Black-ish” star Tracee Ellis Ross advocated for the amplification of black women’s voices, citing writer Audre Lorde’s message that “we too often have been expected to be all things to all people and to speak everyone else’s position but our very own.”

Singer-songwriter Lizzo won an Image Award for entertainer of the year and outstanding music video/visual album for “Juice.” The 31-year old Detroit native won three Grammys earlier this year, but missed out on the top prize of Best New Artist at the MTV Video Music Awards, American Music Awards and the Grammys.  

“I just want to shout out all the big black girls that I bring on stage with me. I do that because I want them to know they are the trophies. We are so special. We are such a beautiful people.”

Lizzo also posted her gratitude to the NAACP on social media.

“Thank you @naapcimageawards and the @naacp for accepting me for exactly who I am. Loud and proud. Big and beautiful. Perfectly black in every way.”

NAACP President and Chief Executive Officer Derrick Johnson presented music and fashion star, business entrepreneur and philanthropist Rihanna with the prestigious President’s Award.

“Thank you to the NAACP for all of your efforts to ensure equality for our communities,” Rihanna said in accepting the award. “Thank you for celebrating our strength and tenacity. We’ve been denied opportunities since the beginning of time. Still, we prevail.”

Other Image Awards winners include 15-year old Marsai Martin, who won four Image Awards for her performances in the motion picture “Little” and the television comedy “Black-ish; Outstanding Actress in a Drama series went to veteran actress Angela Bassett (“9-1-1”) and Lupita Nyong’o took home the award for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture for her role in the horror film “Us.”

Civil rights pioneer John Lewis received the Chairman’s Award. In the 1960s, Lewis was part of the student Freedom Riders who risked their lives to challenge segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South.

Lewis, who is battling pancreatic cancer, thanked the NAACP and accepted his award via a special video he submitted.

“The NAACP inspired me to get into what I call ‘good trouble, necessary trouble,’ to try to change America,” Lewis said. “The NAACP has been like a bridge over troubled waters. We’re going to have more troubled waters and we’re going to need the NAACP now more than ever before.”

For a full list of NAACP Image Award winners, visit naacpimageawards.net.