Variety’s 2021 most influential women lists honors Black girl magic

By Amber Hudson

NABJ Black News & Views

Although 2021 has been a trying year as everyone continues to deal with the impact of COVID-19, there are many silver linings, specifically for Black Women who continue to exude excellence throughout business, entertainment, technology and innovation.

Variety has shared their 2021 Women’s Impact Report which celebrates women who have made an impact in the entertainment industry by creating innovative ways for people to navigate the pandemic. 

This year’s list features a number of Black women. 

Tara Duncan

Tara Duncan:  President, Freeform and Onyx Collective

Hired as the pandemic shut things down in March 2020, producer and former Netflix and AMC exec Duncan focused on communication between content and her audience, reveling in the social-media surge following the premiere of “Cruel Summer,” Freeform’s most-watched series ever. Additionally, she spearheaded the Onyx Collective to curate premium content by diverse creators (including Questlove’s directorial debut, “Summer of Soul … (Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”.

Ava DuVernay & Tilane Jones

Ava DuVernay and Tilane Jones – The Women of Array

Array, which includes a distribution arm, a production unit, the programming and production hub Creative Campus and nonprofit Array Alliance, is all about lifting up vital new voices. Array Crew, connects people of color and women to biz hiring managers, while in response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020, DuVernay launched the Law Enforcement Accountability Project (Leap). That ethos extends beyond just projects and into hiring patterns: Jones joined the DuVernay Agency as an office manager and is now president of Array. “[DuVernay and I] have a shorthand with one another,” Jones says, “because we’ve been working together for so long. It’s been an honor to work with her and call her my friend and my sister.” Besides such hits as “Queen Sugar,” Array has “Colin in Black and White” on deck.

The Women of the ‘Equalizer’: Queen Latifah

Queen Latifah, Star, Exec Producer

Not only is CBS’ hit series “The Equalizer” about a strong, empowered woman, it’s made by a team of strong, empowered women, from executive producer and star Latifah and showrunner Miller (co-showrunner with Andrew W. Marlowe) to executive producer Martin Chase and Season 1 exec producer/director Friedlander. Chase believes the main character, Robyn McCall — created for Latifah — resonates so much with viewers not only because she’s a working mom performing a difficult job while trying to find balance in her life, but also because people wish they had someone like her to turn to in times of crisis. The fact that the show premiered just as the pandemic and social injustice were leaving so many people feeling isolated and helpless only intensified the audience’s reaction to the character. In McCall they saw a woman— who happens to be a woman of color—helping desperate people.

Phylicia Fant

Phylicia Fant Head of Urban, Columbia Records

As head of urban at Columbia Records, Fant has “tentacles in every facet of an artist’s campaign.” Her hard work has certainly paid off this year, to the acclaim of artists including Lil Nas X, 24kGoldn and the Kid Laroi. What’s more, Fant works to include activism within her artists’ campaigns, as when Nas raised funds for the Bail Project through his “Industry Baby” music video.

Ashley Holland

Ashley Holland Partner, TV Scripted, WME

Accepted into the Motion Picture Academy in 2020, Holland has been busy brokering successful client deals and selling straight-to-series projects. She secured an overall deal for Robin Thede with Warner Bros. TV (Thede’s hit “A Black Lady Sketch Show” earned Thede an Emmy nomination). Holland was integral to sending Boots Riley’s first TV show “I’m a Virgo” straight to series at Amazon and cementing Reinaldo Marcus Green as the sole director for the HBO limited series “We Own the City.” These “are the things that remind me that my work and my purpose are in alignment,” she says.

Rikki Hughes

Rikki HughesProducer, Showrunner, Principal, Magic Lemonade Prods.

Hughes has scarcely slowed down throughout the pandemic. A former music manager, the L.A. native spent the past decade becoming an in-demand producer for BET programming and comedy specials (particularly her collaborations with Dave Chappelle), and over the past year she has served as showrunner for the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” reunion and the streetwear competition show “The Hype.” She’s presently at work on a new Chappelle special, an HBO Max special on Stephen and Ayesha Curry and a CW project with Taye Diggs and NeYo.

Meghan Markel

Meghan Markel Duchess of Sussex, Co-Founder, Archewell

The former actor and her husband, the Duke of Sussex (aka the U.K.’s Prince Harry) are forging a ground-breaking path by leaving royal life and launching a foundation and two production companies with an aim to drive systemic cultural change for the better. Archewell has inked deals with Spotify and Netflix, with podcasts and series such as “The Heart of Invictus” and the animated “Pearl.” And oh yes, the Oprah Winfrey interview that shook the world.

Stacy Milner

Stacy Milner Founder & CEO, Entertainment Industry College Outreach Program

“Mama Stacy” helps young Blacks enter showbiz via the Entertainment Industry College Outreach Program’s signature HBCU in L.A. internship. The org has more than 20 industry partnerships and places 30-50 students at a time with many getting hired after. Milner was tapped by then-President Obama’s White House initiative on HBCUs in 2012. Back then, people were still “trying to understand what the acronym meant,” she says. For the record, HBCU stands for historically Black colleges and universities. It’s ironic that Milner has been running the program as she never went to college. Soon after high school Milner headed to California from Ohio but before she could enroll in college, she got into the NBC Page program and never looked back, working with icons including Brandon Tartikoff and Grant Tinker.

Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson

Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson Make-Up Artists, Hair Stylists

Neal and Wilson made history when they earned the hair and makeup Oscar for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” becoming the first Black women to win in that category. Neal praises costume designer Ann Roth for being a hero and mentor. “No one would know my name if it wasn’t for Ann, she took me under her wing over 10 years ago and really guided me through this industry. She has given me incredible opportunities to highlight my artistry.” Wilson says, “The recognition of my art and talent by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is bigger than me. It is for every young hairstylist who dreams beyond the salon chair to work on a motion picture set.”

Angelica Nwandu Founder and CEO, The Shade Room

Nwandu galvanized her website’s 24 million followers to create opportunities for the Black community and emerging talent. The site helped register 180,000 Black voters and reassure the Black community about the safety and efficacy of the COVID vaccines. Partnering with Facebook Watch, she’s started two competition shows to promote Black talent. Philanthropically, she’s established scholarship endowments, funding of transitional housing programs, and donates 10% of all monthly profits back to locals in various forms


Issa Rae Actor, Producer

Per a new five-year overall deal, the “Insecure” co-creator and star will develop TV and film projects for WarnerMedia brands under her Hoorae banner. “[I want to tell] stories that celebrate us, speak to my friends and family and that people are excited to discuss,” says Rae. Upcoming projects she’s producing include HBO docuseries “Seen & Heard,” on Black TV history and HBO Max comedy “Rap Sh*t,” about women rappers in Miami. “We’re taking lots of risks, both on and off the page.”

Jen Salke, Latasha Gillespie, and Ukono Oja

The Women of Amazon: Jen Salke, Latasha Gillespie, Ukonwa Ojo

Jen Salke, Head, Amazon Studios

Latasha Gillespie, Head of Global DEI, Amazon Studios, Prime Video and IMDb

Ukonwa Ojo, Chief Marketing Officer, Prime Video and Amazon Studios

As head of Amazon Studios for the past four years, Salke has had an outsized hand in leading the streaming giant through a noteworthy past year, with Oscar nominees “Sound of Metal,” “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” and “One Night in Miami,” as well as 2021 releases like “Coming 2 America” and “The Tomorrow War,” and the upcoming “Lord of the Rings” series on the near horizon. And she’s hardly the only woman charting new courses at the streamer: Gillespie, who heads DEI for Amazon Prime Video and Amazon Studios, was behind this summer’s ambitious “playbook” for inclusion, which among other things pledged to cast actors whose identity (be it racial, ethnic, gender, or disability) aligns with that their characters. Newer to the team is Ojo, whose efforts have kept newer Amazon releases like “Cinderella” and “The Tomorrow War” at the top of viewers’ minds.

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