|Illustration by Dana Collins|
I'M GOING TO GET PILLORIED FOR THIS, BUT I DON'T MIND DOING IT AND then having to get out of town -- as in ourtown, the lately reinvented Hollywood, or the ageless, sprawling landscape of the mind and local economy that we call the Industry. Take your pick. The Industry, seated in full roster at the Kodak last Sunday for the Academy Awards, was doubtless proud of itself for getting down to the unfinished business of recognizing black performers who, while more numerous now than in previous generations, still had an Oscar batting average close to zero. Not only did the academy redress some bum black history last week, it did it twice in doling out top honors to Denzel Washington and Halle Berry for best actor and best actress. Berry nearly disintegrated into hysterics at the podium, while Washington stood straight and soberly thanked God. All this on the heels of an extended tribute to Sidney Poitier, who brought the house to its feet with his trademark cool but regal bearing and splendid elocution. There was so much love and congratulation in the room, I thought Jack Valenti might materialize to present an impromptu Oscar to host Whoopi Goldberg, who had been grousing semi-good-naturedly about not having a professional stake in the proceedings this year. But even her mood was clearly leavened by what seemed to be the only unqualified American triumph of a troubled 2001 that began with the fallout of the most racially divisive presidential election in recent memory and ended with an event beyond anybody's worst imagination. Thank God, as Woody Allen and Tom Cruise iterated during the show, for the movies and for the reassuring ritual of these awards.
But from the much more modest room where I sat at home, the black mini-sweep was a Pyrrhic victory at best. Look a bit beyond the dazzling significance of the awards themselves -- and in these victory-starved times, that can be tough -- and you have the dull residue of two performances that, for all the thespian elaborations by Washington and Berry, are at their core ironclad black stereotypes that have been with films and pop culture so long, we don't question their viability as real characters anymore (if indeed we ever did). The roles were not so much created as occupied by the latest people willing to spend the two or three months it took to shoot them: If Washington playing a cop whose thug bravado gets the best of him in Training Day and Berry as a poor, uneducated single mom and wife to an incarcerated absentee dad on death row in Monster's Ball mark some kind of artistic breakthrough for black actors, then please, somebody stop me. As a former actor, I hasten to add that I'm not objecting on principle to single moms and conflicted policemen who are black, or any other color; anyrole can be transcendent, of course, and the academy in fact has favored protagonists who are underdogs or fringe-dwellers in an inimitable American sense -- Norma Rae, Taxi Driver, Coal Miner's Daughter. But these characters were all intimately examined and thus read larger than the circumstances of their lives, while the black antihero remains stubbornly exempt from such examination and so almost always reads as criminal and immoral or, at the other extreme, victimized and noble. Washington must be given a world of credit for nuancing potentially hollow men in his career -- the restive slave in Glory, the wrongfully imprisoned Hurricane Carter -- but the critical lather over Training Dayfelt more like collective relief that he was finally letting go of the good guy and playing what all black men are born to play: hoods. With all the swooning over his performance, I went to the theater expecting to see a complicated morality tale along the lines of The Godfather or Casino; what I got instead was Menace II Society with an updated soundtrack and the nervous white presence of Ethan Hawke as big bad Washington's rookie sidekick.
It was Hawke, by the way, who was the guy with a fleshed-out back-story and something to lose, the sympathetic character caught in the terrifying flotsam of black nihilism, with Washington as its grinning tour guide. Training Day was to me the latest addition in a sorry but hugely profitable genre of film I've dubbed ghettotainment, which since the '80s has purported to depict urban realism but in fact churns out a kind of sociological pornography that is more fantasy than anything real. Call it Survivor with production values. For all his skill, Washington could hardly overcome the traps of Training Day, though maybe he deserves an award for surviving the project with his famous dignity intact. People have said I shouldn't complain about his win -- the academy gives prizes for subpar performances all the time when the actor has a sterling body of work that has been overlooked once too often. Washington certainly qualifies for this sort of political payback, but that it would be paid for Training Day says less about politics and more about the kinds of roles the moviemaking elite is most comfortable seeing black actors in, and what they're most comfortable rewarding them for.