By Aaron Leitko and Erin Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 16, 2011; 8:39 PM
Thirty years ago, BET had a niche to fill. It was entertainment for blacks, by blacks and about blacks, back before MTV would even air Michael Jackson videos. But in 2011, African American performers aren't hidden, so the D.C.-based cable network isn't quite as singular as it once was.
But there's no less need for entertainment.
On Saturday night, the network took over the Warner Theatre to fete six visionary figures in black culture. Some honorees were on solid footing on the red carpet - fashion icon Iman, keyboard maestro Herbie Hancock, acting pioneer Cicely Tyson and all-around alpha male Jamie Foxx.
Tyson waxed philosophical about the network's mission. "I don't think it was ever black entertainment because if you know anything about our history in entertainment, we have always been the forerunners," Tyson said matter-of-factly. Non-black entertainers "have taken what we have, stole it and made it their own."
The cameras were clicking away, and she ended on a positive note. "Of course we have our own way of doing things, which separates it from the norm. But it's still entertainment."
Other less visible honorees - publishing mogul Linda Johnson Rice and historian Lonnie Bunch - still found their way down the spotlit path, however cautiously. "I'd much rather be in a library writing history books," Bunch said, a little nervous about having to pose and be "on" for the cameras and microphones. "But it's still wonderful."
Guests stretched across the black entertainment spectrum - including the irrepressible Al Sharpton, singer Keyshia Cole and Baltimore-born actress Nicole Ari Parker with her hunky hubby, Boris Kodjoe. Newly installed D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray strolled and smiled. Avoiding the questioners, but not the crowd, was Marion Barry, who warmly greeted gospel singer Yolanda Adams.
Actress Gabrielle Union, of "Bad Boys" fame, emceed the ceremony, juggling intros and a startling series of wardrobe changes. In two hours she cycled through no fewer than 11 dresses, featuring cut-outs, clingy fabrics and daringly high hemlines. If her clothes dazzled, her onstage presence stayed dim, relying on teleprompter-fed groaners about her boyfriend, Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade, among other topics. "Jamie, aren't you glad your grandmother used a belt?" said Union to Foxx, from left field.
Each award was followed by a musical performance that was supposed to follow logically but often didn't. Chick Corea's all-star tribute to Hancock - jamming to the Herbie-written tune "Dolphin Dance" - made sense. But how Ne-Yo's performance of "Me And Mrs. Jones" fit Johnson Rice was less obvious. "We got a thing going on, we both know that it's wrong," he serenaded.
Mostly, the musical acts were just there to keep things moving. Benin-born singer Angelique Kidjo performed Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up," encircled by dancers from the Broadway musical "Fela!" Two-thirds of late '80s trio Guy brought the audience to its feet with new-jack-swing-era hits "Let's Chill" and "Groove Me."
While Union stuck to her cues, some honorees accepted their awards with an improvisational approach. Cicely Tyson scrapped a pre-written speech for an impromptu spiel that concluded with a dramatic recitation of "Mother to Son," the Langston Hughes poem. "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair," she called out, affecting a crackly, grandmotherly voice.
Foxx, whose award closed the show, was praised as a consummate entertainer - an actor, comedian and crooner of bedroom ballads. BET made mention of all of his accomplishments, from his much-lauded turn as Ray Charles to the Wanda Wayne skits from his days on the early '90s sketch show "In Living Color."
"This is better than an Oscar," Foxx kidded, "because . . . black people are hard to please."