And the Oscar Goes To . . .

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 our town, 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; any role 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 Day felt 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.

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 m├ętier 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.


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