Whether Oscar-Nominated or Not, Black Actresses Will Throw Their Own Party

On Wednesday night, at a house party high in the Hollywood Hills, Alfre Woodard was trying to gather some of the world’s most talented black actresses for a group picture.

“This is what we’re going to do,” she told a bustling crowd that included Cynthia Erivo, S. Epatha Merkerson, Lorraine Toussaint, and Tiffany Haddish. As Woodard surveyed all the women, her eyes landed on the 21-year-old actress Amandla Stenberg, who had been chatting nearby with fellow ingénues Laura Harrier and KiKi Layne.

“Amandla! Hi, darling,” Woodard cooed to her, before joking to the rest of the crowd, “We’re going to have a kids’ table.”

For the last 11 years, Woodard has been throwing this pre-Oscars party, which she named the Sistahs’ Soirée. “I’m gathering women who have been nominated in the acting category by the academy,” she explained over champagne, “as well as those who, in a perfect world, should have been.”

That imagined world is often at odds with the real one, where two straight years of all-white acting nominees at the Oscars prompted the academy to launch a 2016 initiative meant to diversify its membership. Progress has come in fits and starts: Though a record number of black people took home Oscars at last year’s ceremony, the only actor of color nominated this year was Erivo, for her performance in the slavery drama “Harriet.”

At the BAFTA Awards in London earlier this month, where Erivo was snubbed and all 20 acting slots were given to white actors, best-actor winner Joaquin Phoenix even used his acceptance speech to challenge audience members about the ways they benefit from and perpetuate a system of white privilege. “I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem,” Phoenix said, in remarks that went viral on social media.

“It needed to be said,” Erivo told me at the Sistahs’ Soirée. “And it needed to be said by someone like him, because people like me are saying it all the time and it doesn’t get heard.”

An Oscar nominee herself for the 1983 film “Cross Creek,” Woodard is no stranger to the joys and frustrations of awards season: She co-starred in the 2014 best-picture winner “12 Years a Slave” and earned Oscar buzz this past year for her lead performance in the death-row drama “Clemency.” Woodard was pleased that “Clemency” earned nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards, but when I asked how she felt about her performance being excluded from this year’s Oscar lineup, she demurred.

“You know, it’s something entirely separate from what we do,” she said. “I liken it to the baby contests back in the Southwest when I was growing up. It was kind of a hilarious thing: ‘Look at this baby with the nice plump legs!’”

Though the Sistahs’ Soirée orbits the Oscars, Woodard said that her goal was to foster camaraderie, not competition. “It’s important to me that when we hear our sisters’ names, we think good thoughts and feel protective of them,” she said, “so that we don’t get into that bogus sense of competition that the business wants to put you in by saying, ‘Too bad there’s only three roles for black women this year,’ and then they send everybody from KiKi Layne to Cicely Tyson up for the same role.”

Sipping a glass of champagne, Woodard noted that Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for “12 Years a Slave” six years ago, was not handed a starring role until the horror film “Us” last year. “She is still the great mahogany hope, but you’ve seen Lupita more on magazine covers than you have onscreen,” Woodard said. “Every time out, Lupita is fabulous, but look at what she’s done since she won that Oscar and then look at the opportunities of a Scarlett or a Charlize.”

To change the system, Woodard said, a black actress will need not just fierce advocates but also the sort of support that the Sistahs’ Soirée is uniquely positioned to provide. “If there’s 100 roles in a year for women on film, we should be up for 99 of those roles,” Woodard said. “We’ll let the Cates have the queens of England.”

The next day, at a luncheon thrown by Essence to celebrate black women in Hollywood, Woodard was still beaming. She watched from her front-row table as one of the honorees, the “Queen & Slim” director Melina Matsoukas, told the crowd, “It feels incredible to be seen, respected, and have your work valued. It means more when that acknowledgment comes from your own community.”

And when “Pose” actress Mj Rodriguez began to cry onstage, Woodard darted out of her seat to sneak a tissue into the younger woman’s hand.

When Woodard took the stage herself to introduce the “Captain Marvel” actress Lashana Lynch, she paused for a moment to once again survey the crowd of black women. For them, the 67-year-old actress had one simple commandment.

“Stay busy, my daughters,” she said into the microphone. “Stay busy, and especially stay joyful doing it.”

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