In 25 years of writing about TV award shows, I have never seen one with the energy of Sunday's BET Awards Show. Refashioned in the wake of Thursday's death of Michael Jackson into a tribute to him, the live telecast brilliantly tapped into the wellspring of admiration, love, hurt and shock over his death that engulfed the show business community – particularly among Jackson's fellow black performers.

Race was a part of the energy in Sunday's tribute – let's not ignore it. Host Jamie Foxx certainly put it out there on the table from his first words.


Following a show-stopper of an opening that featured New Edition doing a medley of Jackson 5 songs as images of the Jacksons flashed on giants screens behind them, Foxx opened the event by telling the audience at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium, "We want to celebrate this black man. He belongs to us. We shared him with everybody else."

Foxx also indicated his disdain for so-called experts who had been talking about Jackson's life since in the mainstream media since Thursday: "It didn't make no difference to me what his nose looked like… I knew what he sounded like," Foxx said with an edge.

Foxx was clearly inspired by the memory of Jackson on a number of levels. He wore various outfits as homage to the ones worn by Jackson in his most famous music videos, like the black leather of "Billie Jean." He did a moonwalk across the stage – and it wasn't half bad. And repeatedly, Foxx energized the audience by reminding, cajoling, demanding, "Come on, this is for Michael."

And it worked – the audience was constantly on its feet and rocking to the music pouring off the stage.

The memory of Michael Jackson was everywhere. Joe Jackson, Michael's father, sat in the front row flanked by the Rev. Al Sharpton, and two seats down from Beyonce. When Beyonce won the BET Award as best female R & B artist, she said, "I want to thank Michael Jackson for being my teacher and my hero. When Beyonce performed, she included a verse of "In the Arms of an Angel," and it was clear that she was singing about Michael Jackson.

Ne-Yo brought the hall to a reverential hush for his tender rendition of the Jackson ballad, "Lady in My Life."

And then came Keri Hilson dressed in tights and a leather jacket bringing some of Michael Jackson's most inspired music video dance moves back to life with an androgyny that would have surely met with Michael Jackson's approval. Get over to YouTube now, and check it out.

"When we heard the news of Michael Jackson's passing, we knew immediately we were going to have to change the nature of this show," BET president Debra Lee told the Shrine and TV audiences. "It was a labor love. Michael was truly a musical deity."

The closing moments included a tearful message of thanks by Janet Jackson: "To you, Michael is an icon. To us, Michael is family. And he will forever live in all our hearts. Thank you for all your love."

And then, Foxx and Ne-Yo led the hall in singing "I'll Be There" as the cameras showed face after face streaked with tears.

The production was not perfect. Foxx plugged his upcoming tour twice too much, and he told a really stupid joke about unprotected sex.

At times, the telecast had an ad-lib, ragged feel. On one occasion, Foxx clearly did not know that the telecast was back from commercial, and he was on camera. He asked several times if they were back, before the producer got word to him that indeed they were and millions had been listening to him testing the microphone and asking if they were live. There were also a few profanities the censors missed.

But, in the end, who really cares? Such production gaffes only added to the energy of the broadcast.

"There's a beautiful energy that's circulating in this room," said Alicia Keys, as she accepted an award as Humanitarian of the Year. "There's a certain spirit that's in this room. And I know whose spirit is. I think we all know whose spirit is in this room."


There was a beautiful energy and spirit in Sunday's telecast, too. BET has often failed its audience in recent years. But Sunday night, Black Entertainment Television responded to a cultural moment that millions of Americans were still feeling intensely, and BET got it right.