BET honoree singer Mariah Carey with her husband Nick Cannon and her son Morrocan speak after receiving BET Entertainer Award during the BET Honors at the Warner Theatre in Washington on Saturday. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

The 2012 BET Honors: Bigger, better and, for the first time, graced by a visit from the first lady. But still fairly freewheelin’.

Now in its fifth year, the network’s platinum evening, which celebrates African American achievement across a spectrum of disciplines, turned up the star wattage. The two-hour ceremony, which was taped Saturday evening at the Warner Theatre (to be broadcast Feb. 13), honored singers Mariah Carey and Stevie Wonder, filmmaker Spike Lee, poet Maya Angelou, the Tuskegee Airmen and Olympic track coach Beverly Kearney. The presenters included marquee-friendly names such as Aretha Franklin, Common, Queen Latifah and Willow Smith as well as some political types, including Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., senior adviser to the president Valerie Jarrett and former secretary of state Colin L. Powell.

But it was an appearance by first lady Michelle Obama, who made her BET Honors debut to help fete Angelou, that stole the show. Really, the only way to top that would have been an Oprah walk-on (though the talk-show mogul did film some pre-taped comments for Angelou’s segment).

Still, for all the elegance and black-tie hoopla, the evening retained a family-style intimacy. And a disdain for the teleprompter.

Back for her fourth year as host, actress Gabrielle Union has become the BET Honors’ answer to Oscar-host-for-life Billy Crystal. She seemed a little over it, though. “I’m like an end table that people walk past,” Union said on the red carpet before the taping. She was only sort of joking. “This is probably my last one. I’m sure there’s a new toy to play with in the shed.”

But the program’s producers should keep her phone number handy. Union’s jaded attitude added a prickly edge to the proceedings, with shots at beleaguered Republican primary candidate Herman Cain (“He was coming until he realized it was a BET party and not a tea party”) and some friendlier taps at her boyfriend, NBA star Dwyane Wade.

In the past, the program followed a straightforward speech-to-song progression. This year, things got a little more ambitious. Angelou was celebrated with an earnest recitation of her poem “Still I Rise” by Cicely Tyson, Queen Latifah, Jill Scott and preteen hair-whip phenom Willow Smith. For his friend Spike Lee, Stevie Wonder — who did double duty as performer and honoree — did a take of “Living for the City,” fleshed out with a dramatized protest scene. Wonder was, in turn, serenaded by Aretha Franklin, who belted out her 1973 hit “Until You Come Back to Me,” a song he co-wrote.

But it wouldn’t be the BET Honors without a few off-the-cuff moments.

Introducing Lee, “Boyz n the Hood” director John Singleton tossed his scripted speech, opting for some raw, spontaneous passion. Well, maybe not all that spontaneous. He needed three takes to get it perfected. “I’m trying to give you something better than what they wrote, man,” he joked to Lee, who was seated in the front row.

Record producer and former ’80s R&B singer L.A. Reid did a rundown of Mariah Carey’s stats — the hits, the vocal range, the albums sold. The musical tributes were heaped on, too. Singer Kelly Rowland performed “Fantasy” with help from Wu-Tang Clan rapper Raekwon, and disco-era diva Patti LaBelle covered “Hero.” Carey — sewn into a bejeweled, flesh-colored gown, blond hair weaved to Rapunzel length — got a bit misty-eyed.

How do you upstage all that? Bring in a baby.

Carey’s husband, entertainer Nick Cannon — fresh out of the hospital, where he was treated for “minor kidney failure” — appeared with son Moroccan, one of the couple’s infant twins. Cannon let the world in on Mariah as mama rather than diva.

“You don’t see her up at 3 in the morning fixing me soup and stuff when my kidneys ain’t acting right,” he said. “Mariah Carey does that.”