“We don’t have power. We are power,” said Ava DuVernay to an audience of women in the open air outside the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California.
The filmmaker was being honored alongside Oprah Winfrey at Variety’s annual Power of Women dinner on Wednesday. The duo was celebrated for their work on OWN’s “Queen Sugar,” where they hired all women — 42 in total — to direct the drama’s 88-episode and seven-season run.
“Ava had this idea,” recalled Winfrey. “I remember, I was standing in my kitchen and she called me and said, ‘I’ve got this idea. What if we have all women directors?’ And I said, ‘Can we do that?’ And she said, ‘You can. It’s your network.’ I said, ‘Yaaaas.’”
A performance by Snoh Aalegra kicked off the event, with comedian and “Hacks” actress Megan Stalter as host. Held in partnership with Lifetime, sponsors included Cadillac and Google.
“Abbott Elementary” creator and actress Quinta Brunson, on the heels of her Emmy win, introduced honoree and Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai — founder of production company Extracurricular.
“We explore the roles of teachers in our society and how they shape the future generations of children through their work,” Brunson said of her show, highlighting the importance of advocating for public schools in America. “Teachers work in schools that are underfunded, they’re underpaid, and yet many of them dedicate their lives to guiding children through the most difficult times.”
Among her endeavors, Yousafzai, the world’s youngest Nobel Prize laureate, looks to create opportunities for people of color, particularly Muslim women, in television and film. She wants to help young artists “reflect the world as they see it,” she said.
“Asians make up less than 4 percent of leads in Hollywood films,” Yousafzai told the crowd. “Muslims are 25 percent of the population, but only 1 percent of characters in popular TV series.”
She highlighted Kashif Shaikh and Riz Ahmed’s Pillars Artist Fellowship, which invests in Muslim writers and directors.
“I’m not asking for representation,” she continued “To me, representation is just a consolation prize. I want our shows and our films to be the mainstream.”
Jacqueline Martinez Garcel received the Social Impact Award for her work at the Latino Community Foundation, sharing a powerful speech on diversity, equity and inclusion.
“In two years we lost 40,000 Latinos in [California], because we couldn’t give them the health care they deserved years before COVID-19 hit, and Latinos on the frontlines suffered the devastation of us ignoring those injustices and those inequities,” she said.
With abortion and women’s rights a topic of conversation throughout the night, Chelsea Clinton reminded the crowd that “progress has to be defended and protected in every generation.” She was honored with her mother, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, for their Apple TV+ show “Gutsy.” The two traveled around the country for the series, exploring thought-provoking conversations. “Sometimes we also have to win it back,” she added.
“Because we’re at this moment of reckoning, not only in our country but around the world, about human rights and women’s rights, it’s critically important that we tell these stories,” said Hillary, stating issues facing women today in Afghanistan, who are deprived of education, and Ukraine, where they’re defending their country against “the barbarity” of Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
“And I could not stand up here tonight without also recognizing the brave women in Iran who are standing up for their rights, their freedom against a horrific regime who stays in power in large measure because they oppress women,” she said, referencing the most recent protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini.
Honoree Elizabeth Olsen, recognized for her work with the Rape Treatment Center and Stuart House, turned the spotlight on the founder of the organizations, Gail Abarbanel, when it was her time to take the mic.
It was in 1974 that Abarbanel began her work as a social worker in a Santa Monica hospital ER, explained Olsen.
“That’s where she saw the lack of specialized care and privacy for rape victims,” said the “Marvel” actress, explaining that Stuart House focuses on helping sexually abused children.
Abarbanel next looks to tackle sexual abuse on the internet.
“When I learned about tonight, I asked Gail if there is anything that she would like to do next with the foundation, because in my mind she’s already thought of everything,” said Olsen. “She said, ‘Yes, to stop sexual abuse on the internet.’ And to me that sounded very, very big and maybe impossible. But if you were to ask her what she wanted to create in 1974, I think that would have also sounded just as big and impossible.”