In a year crowded with triumph, controversy and loss, the 2016 edition of the BET Awards took it all in Sunday night at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, with a program that poignantly marked the joy and pain since last year’s telecast, even as the awards event kept faith with its own history as a forum for social commentary.
With the passing of Prince on April 21, and other singular talents of black music before and since — Funkadelic-Parliament co-founder Bernie Worrell died on Friday — the mood could have been justifiably more introspective than in previous years. But the ceremony veered from the serious — voter registration, an end to gun violence, the need for community outreach — to moments of straight-up fun.
Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar kicked things off with a literally splashy performance of Queen Be’s “Freedom,” done with dancers in a pool of water that doubled briefly as a stage.
To its credit, the telecast resisted the temptation to isolate a tribute to Prince in one segment. Instead, tributes to The Purple One were weaved organically throughout the show. Erykah Badu and The Roots did a funked-up version of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” Bilal’s blistering rendition of “The Beautiful Ones” brought down the house early.
Later, Stevie Wonder and newcomer Tori Kelly took on “Take Me With U,” Janelle Monae wowed with a Prince medley that included “Delirious,” “Kiss” and “I Would Die 4 U.” And in one of the evening’s more deeply emotional performances, Jennifer Hudson sang “Purple Rain,” accompanied by Wonder.
Jamie Foxx, who personally met both Prince and Muhammad Ali, who died June 3 after a decades-long bout with Parkinson’s Disease, offered a personal tribute to the late champion, whom Foxx said was “a person who has shaped all of our lives.” Then Foxx introduced Laila Ali, one of the heavyweight champion’s nine children. “If he was here today, he would humbly ask you to pray not just for our family, but for all of mankind,” Laila Ali said, fighting back tears.
“These past few weeks my father’s generosity and love has been matched by a worldwide outpouring of love and reverence for him and our entire family,” Ali said.
In another of the night’s more spiritually galvanizing moments, Jesse Williams, who portrays Dr. Jackson Avery in ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” accepted the Humanitarian Award, and made an impassioned speech.
“We know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm, and not kill white people every day, so what’s going to happen is, we’re going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.”
Referencing the death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy slain by Cleveland police in 2014, Williams said, “I don’t want to hear anymore about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive by on a 12-year-old playing alone in a park in broad day light, killing him on television, and then going home to make a sandwich.”
Williams also made reference to the police-custody deaths of Sandra Bland and Eric Garner. “There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of, there has been no job we haven’t done, there has been no tax they haven’t levied against us and we’ve paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. ‘You’re free,’ they keep telling us. ‘But she would’ve been alive if she hadn’t acted so free,'” Williams said to a standing ovation.
And introduced by the director Spike Lee, film star Samuel L. Jackson took the stage to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award, crowning a 45-year career. Jackson, who stars in “The Legend of Tarzan,” opening July 1, was grateful. “A young man who grew up in segregated Tennessee that nobody ever told I could be this. So, here I am and who you are, and thank God for that.”
In a ritual of appreciation not unlike those at the Academy Awards, Jackson went on to thank those who supported him, including his accountants, his publicist, his agent and lawyer and his Aunt Edna, who first put him in a costume and “lit the fire that started all this.” Jackson then moved on to his daughter Zoe and his wife, the actress LaTanya Richardson, “the two women that actually found me passed out on the floor after I left somebody’s bachelor party, put my ass in rehab the next day, and supported me and pushed me and give me a reason to get up and go and chase it day after day after day.”
The fans weren’t forgotten, either: Jackson thanked everyone “who ever bought a ticket, a video or a DVD with my ass in it.”