LOS ANGELES – When put all together in a room at the Elle Women in Hollywood celebration, America Ferrera, Jennifer Lopez, Jodie Foster, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Greta Lee, Fantasia Barrino Taylor, Lily Gladstone and Eva Longoria are effusive in their praise for each other and those who paved the way.
But they're also unflinchingly honest about how being part of historically underrepresented groups affected their trajectories in Hollywood.
The nine honorees, who grace Elle's 2023 Women in Hollywood December/January issue, reflected on their careers Tuesday night at Nya Studios for the 30th annual event hosted by the magazine, joined by Oprah Winfrey, Ben Affleck, Natasha Lyonne, Stephanie Hsu and more.
It "did not elude me that there are three Latinas on this list, which is like: Yes!" Ferrera said after "best friend" Longoria presented her with an award.
"It is an incredible honor to stand alongside you and to know that our work does not require a separate diversity awards ceremony," Ferrera said, "and our work is being honored in the main spaces, the dominant spaces. I cheer you on and I celebrate your wins as my own." The previous evening, the "Barbie" star accepted the Groundbreaker Award at the Critics Choice Association's Celebration of Cinema & Television: Honoring Black, Latino and AAPI Achievements.
However, the honorees detailed that the dominant spaces have not always been representative of everyone.
For the star of the critically acclaimed awards circuit darling "Past Lives," Lee recalled how she struggled to purchase a Ben Nye makeup box as a theater student due to none of the shades matching her skin tone – a "lonely and upsetting experience." Nearly two decades later, she thanked her younger self "for not giving up."
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After posing on the black carpet with husband Affleck, who otherwise stood on the sidelines and took photos of his wife, Lopez took to the stage to accept the Icon Award.
"I don't have an Oscar, and I don't have a Golden Globe, and I don't have a Grammy, or a SAG Award, or a BAFTA, or a Critics Choice or a Hollywood Film Award. I do a have a Palm Springs International Film Festival Spotlight Award," she joked.
After a round of applause, the "Shotgun Wedding" star continued, "But this is my fifth icon award."
The multihyphenate reflected on her career, from dancing to acting, singing and starting businesses. As she broke into Hollywood, "I could look forward to playing the maid a lot of times – or the loud-mouth Latina. But I knew I wanted to be the leading lady."
As her acceptance speech came to a climax, Lopez delivered a monologue that rivaled Ferrera's viral soliloquy in "Barbie" as she mused about "tremendous opposition" she's experienced in being taken seriously while pursuing various career endeavors.
"The idea was that you were not as real a musician if you were also an actress, or you're not a serious actor if you're a dancer, or a legitimate business person ... if you are an artist," Lopez said. "You couldn't be good or credible at anything if you were sexy, and you couldn't be sexy if you were a mom, and you couldn't be intelligent if you were beautiful, and so on and so on.
"And you certainly couldn't be any of those things if you were a little Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx," she continued. "You understand that the actual magic of being a woman is to be able to do many different things and do them spectacularly and quietly with our heads down, day to day, without complaining and most times with little appreciation and recognition."
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Winfrey graced the stage to present awards to three of the stars from "The Color Purple" (out Dec. 25): Henson, Brooks and Barrino Taylor. The media mogul is producing the musical adaptation of the 1985 Steven Spielberg film (itself an adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel), in which she starred as Sofia.
"I can't get used to you saying my name," Henson said during her speech and credited Winfrey as a "guiding light" and "a huge reason why we are able to dream."
The "Empire" actor, who plays Shug Avery in "The Color Purple," explained, "If you're a kid and you went to public school in inner cities (then) the fact that you’re here, you’ve made it. ... You're a living testimony because when you’re in a public school, you are in the pipeline to prison."
Barrino Taylor, whom Winfrey called "a phoenix rising in this moment," thanked Winfrey for believing in her. The actor/singer, who portrays Celie in "The Color Purple," told Winfrey, "You saw something in me that I didn't see in myself a long time ago, and I know you were just waiting for me to get it right. You were just waiting for me to see it, and I see it now."
Then there was Brooks, who stars as Sofia, the role that Winfrey played in the 1985 film "The Color Purple." She expressed gratitude for not only Winfrey's trailblazing but also for the Black women who came before her in Hollywood.
"I stand in the gap today for the women who were shut out, who had to demand to be seen and heard, and sometimes when they lost that battle, they kept getting back up again, and again, and again, because they knew that this thing was bigger than them," Brooks said. "I’m speaking for the women who were deemed too dark, or too fat, their hair was not straight enough. The women that were subjected to only playing maids and mammies and being the sassy big woman while getting paid pennies to everyone else’s dollar."
She named late actors such as Louise Beavers, Etta McDaniel, Mabel King, Isabel Sanford, Nell Carter, Esther Rolle and Hattie McDaniel, who was the first Black woman to win an Oscar in 1940.
"Because of their sacrifices they made in Hollywood, I get the privilege of standing before you with a multifaceted career. And even though we still have way more glass to break, I vow to continue to demand that we be captured on screen as so much more by the roles that I choose," Brooks said.
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Lily Gladstone says Native American representation in Hollywood 'is a legacy of survival'
Gladstone, who played Mollie Kyle Burkhart of the Osage Nation in Martin Scorsese's "Killers of the Flower Moon," acknowledged that "we know representation is tricky as women from many backgrounds."
She pointed to the so-called "Lily Gladstone Effect" mentioned in Dr. Stacy L. Smith's study for the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative on Native representation in popular films, which found that "Native American characters are nearly invisible in top films." In 16 years and across 1,600 films, Natives comprised less than a quarter of a percent of all speaking characters, according to Smith.
"We come from communities where 95% of us, in some places at least, were wiped off of this Earth. So our representation in Hollywood is a legacy of survival," Gladstone said. "Our representation in the stories that we tell, it's really how we've kept going. And a part of that is the stories that women carry forward, the way that we carry each other forward.
"We came from every corner of this continent and Canada to be here tonight," Gladstone said of the attendees, whom she said represented 13 different tribal nations. "And we're still here, we're still going, and our stories continue as long as we’re here to speak them."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jennifer Lopez, America Ferrera reflect on representation in Hollywood