I AM FAR LESS CONFLICTED ABOUT HALLE BERRY. While I appreciated her acknowledgment, once she tamed the hysteria, of forebears like Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, I didn't appreciate her baring her ass and generally stooping to conquer in Monster's Ball. I don't think Lena or Dorothy would, either. Not because black women shouldn't be naked onscreen or hew to some impossible double standard of public image, but because everybody involved in the film had to smell the stink of possible exploitation in the camera lingering for five minutes on a black woman having butt-grinding sex with a white stranger on her living-room floor. A black woman who was dressed in short skirts, hot pants or tight T-shirts in practically every frame for no good reason. (Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich had a good reason, but what's Berry's excuse?) And here was a film ostensibly about the perils and pitfalls of racial exploitation, falling all too willingly into the ditch more than once; that tendency tainted the movie for me early on, and the fact that Billy Bob Thornton wound up, like Ethan Hawke, being the white rube guided to some personal illumination by the black icon didn't help. But Berry turned out to be in the right place at the right time, the clear beneficiary of a movement within the academy -- the counter of all the mudslinging and vicious Oscar campaigning -- that it was high time to give the best-actress statue to a black woman for the first time in its history. It was unquestionably overdue. Berry has no sterling career but provided enough of an opportunity with Monster's Ball, and the academy took it. The most distressing thing is that she may have even done a credible job in the movie, as Washington may have too, but the damning context in which they did it renders the question superfluous.
Another bit of troubling context was the Sidney Poitier tribute. Here was a man who had broken barriers not merely of race but of substance: Poitier proved way back in the '50s that black men didn't have to be clowns or hustlers or pimps to play the lead. His métier was the middle class, and he brought a complexity and depth (if an overmannered gravitas on occasion) even to his characters of little means in films like Raisin in the Sun and Lilies of the Field. Tempting as it is to link Poitier's successes with Washington's and Berry's, to see it all as a lovely continuum of progress, the discomfiting truth is that Poitier set a pattern that never took hold in Hollywood. When Washington said he had been chasing Poitier for 40 years, he wasn't kidding; so has every other adult black actor desperately seeking something in feature films besides comic turns and variations on the mean-street theme. Poitier wouldn't be caught dead in Training Day, nor Dandridge in Monster's Ball (though Poitier would have leapt at the chance to play John Nash in A Beautiful Mind); real progress would mean that enough roles for black actors are out there to render these films merely two of many instead of lone platforms for the very few black performers Hollywood sanctions at any given time. Progress is control, and black actors and others in the business are still living in the matrix that has proved beneficent this year, but is not likely to remain so. In granting a two-fer at this year's awards, the industry is more likely than ever to get lazy about issues of diversity and perspective and such. I wish Hollywood could have heard the succinct review a good friend of mine gave the Oscar telecast on the morning after. "Well," she said. "It was Negro Night at the Oscars. The academy made history in giving the big awards to black actors who between them portrayed a gangster and a ho. What's it all mean?" I don't know, but I doubt that the people in Our Town who do are losing much sleep over it.