Black America and the Oscars: A one-night stand?

From Internet message boards to barbershops, African-Americans are abuzz with debate over Halle, Denzel and Sidney's history-making moments. Is "Monster's Ball" a racist film or a breakthrough? Do blacks wield any real power in Hollywood? Was the Oscar "blackout" more than a whitewash?

Published March 29, 2002 9:00PM (EST)

All the world's a film set, and the major players on it are now black, if you believe the hype following Oscars 2002. The 74th Academy Awards will be remembered for Cirque du Soleil's loops and spins, Gwyneth's droopy twins, and, of course, historic wins, the so-called sweep by not one (gasp!) but two (choke!) African-Americans, who took Oscar home for the first time in, like, millennia.

When Halle Berry's name rang out on Sunday night, I flung myself into the air, kicking my heels together like an extra from "The Wiz." Then Julia Roberts read out "Denzel Washington," and I had a total "I'm the king of the world" epiphany right there in my living room. This sense of collective victory wasn't mine alone. Earlier, Will Smith told reporters that, if Washington won, he would go up with him because Washington "would be winning for all of us."

In post-show interviews, Eric Benet, Berry's husband, admitted he nearly bum-rushed the stage. Even Sidney Poitier looked like he might either bungee-jump from his balcony, or do the Roberto Benigni chair-hurdle for a group hug on the podium with Berry and Washington. News clips that night showed black people in churches, community centers and schools (including Denzel Washington's high school drama teacher) simply losing it. "I felt elated," says film critic Rose "Bams" Cooper, "and, in a communal sense, vindicated."

Cooper, an editor at 3BlackChicks Film Review, admits that she thought Tom Wilkinson should have won the best actor award for "In the Bedroom," but says it was about time Denzel got his due. "Denzel's best work, in 'Malcolm X,' wasn't rewarded," says Cooper. "So if it was good enough for Al Pacino to win for 'Scent of a Woman' instead of 'The Godfather,' it's good enough for Denzel Washington."

But now that the fairy dust has settled, reviews of the night are more mixed. Some media reports are a little sniffy about the whole affair, as if Oscar's "blackout" was political correctness pushed to an extreme. In letters to newspaper editors, and more openly, on the Internet, many white viewers seem confused, uncomfortable, even annoyed about all the fuss. Why make such a big deal over two black winners, if society's supposed to be colorblind? And, deeewd, did Halle Berry really have to play the race card in her speech?

Meanwhile, the black community has its own misgivings. Even before the awards, African-Americans were cynical about how the night would unfold. "It's the way it was packaged," says Frances Turner, an attorney in Manhattan. "Whoopi hosting! Denzel! Will! Halle nominated! Sidney honored! The ushers are black! People are gonna wear black dresses! Instead of it just being about honoring actors who gave great performances that deserve Oscars."

After decades of frosty treatment from Hollywood, many found it hard to get excited just because Oscar and black America had a one-night stand. Was the Academy's vote based on merit alone, or a lame attempt to make us forget the 74 years we weren't counted, even when we stood up?

"I think, overall, the Academy didn't do much to honor black cinema," says Esther Iverem, a film critic and editor at "It still managed to avoid giving a big award to a film or performance centered on the black experience. If Will Smith had won for 'Ali,' now that would have been historic."

For many African-Americans, the principal issue is not whether Halle or Denzel deserved to win, but why the Academy chose to reward them for these particular roles. A quick flashback through black Oscar winners reveals a questionable pattern in the characters endorsed by Hollywood's major league: Hattie MacDaniel as mammy ("Gone With the Wind"), Denzel as slave ("Glory"), Cuba Gooding Jr. as athlete/buffoon ("Jerry Maguire"), Whoopi Goldberg as a Miss Cleo-type mystic ("Ghost"). Now Washington gets props for playing a dirty cop and Berry's the center of attention after her character makes the beast with two backs with the white racist executioner who killed her black husband.

"You have to wonder if this is what it takes for a black woman to be named best actress," says Iverem. "Who was the last 'best actress' who did a nude sex scene?" (Actually, that would have been Paltrow and her twins again, in "Shakespeare in Love.") Iverem continues: "Ultimately, 'Monster's Ball' uses the legacy of racism in an unconvincing manner to belittle its impact, and its historical and present-day consequences."

The "Monster's Ball" debate is still raging. African-American bulletin boards on the Internet are filled with expressions of outrage, mostly beginning with, "I haven't seen the film but ..." According to Iverem, scores of black men are boycotting the film, which they believe insults, and even cuckolds them by placing Berry in bed with Billy Bob Thornton. On the message boards, Miles Willis bemoans having to "watch fine black women gettin' down with mangy, white redneck 'billybobs'" (conveniently forgetting that Berry herself is biracial).

Willis, a radio DJ, writes: "Imagine the seething indignation that a Jewish man might feel while watching a story in which the widow of a Nazi concentration camp victim has an intimate relationship with the SS officer that shoved her husband into one of those ovens at Auschwitz!"

Stanley Tatum, a dailies producer who has worked on films such as "The Laramie Project," "K-PAX" and "A Beautiful Mind," has a less inflammatory but nonetheless stinging critique of how race relations play out on the big screen. "It's amazing the vacuum black people exist in cinematically, having no options, let alone a developed character," he says. "So the white character [in 'Monster's Ball'] can come in like Sir Galahad, giving the downtrodden Negress a lifeline: a ride to work, a place to stay and cunnilingus." He adds, however, that Berry's performance "rose above the material and the subject matter."

For my part, I was beginning to cultivate an active, and very enjoyable, dislike for Berry after "X-Men" (Storm? She was more of a drizzle) and "Bulworth" (featuring Warren Beatty as "her nigga"). And who could forget the horror that was "BAPS"? Her irrelevant flasher job in "Swordfish" -- for which the NAACP Image Awards saw fit to honor her -- almost sealed the deal. Then I saw her multilayered performance in "Monster's Ball," and I was floored. Berry owned that role, body and soul. It recalled the promise she showed in some of her earliest work, such as "Jungle Fever" and "Losing Isaiah."

In the hoo-ha over the politics of Berry's jungle-fever role in "Monster's Ball," I feel people are missing the subtleties of a film that shows how racism is not innate, but transmitted like an infection. It's easy to cry bigot, but the film constantly asks you to look beneath the surface, challenging you to reconsider Thornton's character as a three-dimensional human being. Maybe the scenario is not completely plausible or realistic, but since when did film have to be factual to convey truth?

As for Washington, the man could read from George W. Bush's Teleprompter and make it come alive. As Alonzo in "Training Day," he was convincing long after the script lost credibility. And in my opinion, playing it safe in films like "The Preacher's Wife" was more damaging to his career than showing his range by playing a bad guy. Besides, must he be so damn worthy all the time? Why should black actors be limited, not just by white casting directors and scriptwriters, but by black audiences' narrow parameters for what constitutes the black experience?

"You know how dogmatic we can get, when it comes to the gospel of black art," says Christopher Kess, a writer and drama student in Baltimore. "You know we're all supposed to 'uplift the race' with each and every artistic endeavor we engage in."

It speaks to how starved we are for accurate representation that we place such high expectations on our finest candidates.

"I believe that it is ultimately a good thing that Halle and Denzel won for playing roles that are part of the black experience," says Angel Kyodo Williams, the author of "Being Black: Zen and the Art of Fearlessness and Living with Grace." She continues, "It sits better with me than if they had won for roles that sought to present black folks in terms of white cultural norms and acceptability."

When Hollywood gets it wrong so often, maybe we should stop looking to the big screen for versions of our story, say some critics. Perhaps it's time we got our priorities straight and focused on more important realities. "Ultimately, we're all overanalyzing an industry that's too self-congratulatory and self-absorbed," says Tatum. "I can't believe folks were ready to protest if neither Halle or Denzel won. 'No Justice, No Peace?' Come on, folks! The Rampart scandal and other police-misconduct cases are still a sore spot in Los Angeles but you're gonna 'Burn, Hollywood, Burn' if Denzel doesn't get his second statue?"

Still, there's no point pretending we don't care. Maybe the Academy Awards are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but you could say the same about Super Bowl. So Tom Cruise came over all Scientology on us, and Woody Allen trotted out a few lame jokes? At least the Academy didn't wheel out the ex-presidents to impress upon us the awesome weightiness of the occasion.

It's impossible to overlook the fact that the Academy Awards is the biggest night for a billion-dollar industry, and the world is watching. Winners raise those trophies like dumbbells because Oscar signals power. The triple whammy of Berry, Washington and Poitier made an undeniable impact, although few black people are naïve enough to call it a revolution.

"I don't think any of us really expect doors to be open -- or stay open -- for black Hollywood," says Rose "Bams" Cooper. "They're going to have to keep kicking them in. But maybe these wins will give their kicks added strength."

Rev. Frank Garrett, a Baptist pastor and radio host from Austin, Texas, is one of many who think it's ridiculous to call Oscars 2002 a "sweep." "Not when there are no black producers, directors or technical nominees in the mix," he says. "Oscar night was a glass-ceiling-buster before the camera, but we are still behind in the areas of real power: off-camera, where the deals are made and framed. This won't happen until black money is underwriting the entire project."

The general consensus is that if there are any immediate benefits, they'll go directly to Berry and Washington. We'll probably see them headlining together soon, if someone wants to cough up a fat chunk of change (Denzel is now part of the $20-million-per-movie club.) But wait a minute; aren't Berry and Washington already among Hollywood's most blessed? These are actors whose box-office appeal, for whatever reason, transcends race.

Fellow nominee Will Smith falls into the same bracket, as middle America sees him less as a strong black man than a live-action Mickey Mouse. As for Poitier, he's always been safe to bring home to dinner. No wonder so many white folks were surprised by all the focus on race. Some might argue that throwing gold eunuchs at safe bets like Berry, Poitier and Washington is one thing, but the Academy (much like Oscar) still doesn't have the balls to broaden its vision of the acceptable black face. But others, like Angel Kyodo Williams, have a more expansive take on the event.

"My impression was that an historic shift took place, that had more to do with the way they won than just the fact of their winning," she says. "Halle and Denzel's roles speak volumes to the range and diversity of who black America is, can be and what we have been able to transcend. We are neither this needy, broken, confused country gal, nor that pearly white-teeth perfect movie star. We're neither, we're both, and we're everything in between. You cannot point a finger at any single model, ideal or construct and say that is what a black person is or isn't. What is increasingly apparent is that we are limitless."

By Uju Asika


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