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Halle and Denzel bring it home. We should be jumping for joy… right?

Not All of Us Are Oscar Happy

By Esther Iverem
SeeingBlack.com Editor and Film Critic

What do these Oscar wins mean? Talk about it! Click here.

While in this moment, the beauty and power of two Blacks winning Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Actress cannot be denied, maybe we will realize eventually that what has happened is really business as usual. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has still managed to avoid giving any big award for a film or performance centered on the Black experience. What's more, similar to the 1939 Best Supporting Actress award given to Hattie McDaniel for "Gone With the Wind," this year's Best Actress award (and to a lesser degree the Best Actor award) was given for a role not only controversial in the Black community but openly despised by many.

Romeo Must Die

Denzel's Training Day is now available on DVD. (Click to purchase.)

We talk about it among ourselves, out of range of the microphones, TV cameras and reporter's notebooks of corporate media—lest we be accused of hatin' or raining on our thespian moment in the sun or, worse, being ignorant of the potential resulting gains in Hollywood. And, of course, how the Black community feels about our portrayal in film is usually waved off as insensitive whining about the creative process. In the oh-so-sacrosanct world of critical authority and voice, we lack credibility given by said same corporate media. But still we know, with the kind of authority that we claim over our own history, story and lives, that Denzel Washington "won" the Oscar for Best Actor when he starred in Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" in 1992. We know he "won" it again when he played Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in the movie "The Hurrricane" three years ago. (And if he didn't win, Kevin Spacey damned sure didn't!)

Not only were Denzel's performances phenomenal, not only did he, establishing a pattern, make flawed films into decent ones, these stories were important ones for illuminating the Black experience. They not only told a story about history and race, but also about racism. (After the New York Times "race" series, I'm beginning to understand the difference) and our complex existence in a racist society. But just as Sidney Poitier did not win for "In the Heat of the Night" (but instead for the sappy "Lillies of the Field), just as James Earl Jones did not win for "The Great White Hope," just as Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield did not win for "Sounder" and just as Diahann Carroll did not win for "Claudine," Washington did not win for his roles in films about our journey.

It has not escaped the attention of even the most casual observer of Black film that Washington has finally won the Best Actor award for playing a crooked LAPD narcotics detective, a thug so without heart that he risks the life of his mistress and son to save his own, (and who provides cinematic counterbalance to images of four white LAPD officers beating Rodney King senseless). Don't get me wrong. I give large props to Washington's performance in this film. I am not one of those who cried foul just because he was not playing the usual upstanding, good-guy. It is just striking, and to many of us more than a coincidence, that he is awarded for playing one of our thugs we know so well, rather than for playing our "Shining Black prince." Sure, some White actors have also gotten "make-up" awards, where the actor is seen as having been passed over and wins later on as a sort of compensation. But none of those actors and performances have the same social resonance that Denzel Washington has when he plays a thug versus a race man.

We have won Oscars for playing bit parts in stories really about White folks—Cuba Gooding, Jr. in "Jerry Maguire," Whoopi Goldberg in "Ghost" and the list goes on. And while every performance was wonderful and deserving, they still required the Black actor or actress to fit into a role and story centered around White folks and written from their perspective. And this fitting into a role either outside of our experience is the problem many folks have with "Monster's Ball."

In the film, deftly written and filled with thought-provoking images and scenes, the writers try to convince us that a poor Black woman in a small southern town (Halle Berry) will turn to a White man (Billy Bob Thornton), who is an open racist, for sexual comfort and companionship. Only through this prison guard, who we see (but she doesn't see) chase Black children from his property with a shotgun, call his co-worker a nigger and execute the woman's husband, does she find peace. We are also to believe that the racist's own personal tragedy, coupled with the Black woman's desperation and neediness, will cause the racist to make an about-face. Ultimately, "Monster's Ball" uses the legacy of racism in an unconvincing manner to belittle its impact, and historical and present-day consequences.

I think the only reason there hasn't been a bigger outcry is because, unlike the premiere of "Gone With the Wind," which was a national event, not many people—especially Black people—have even seen "Monster's Ball," a low-budget flick playing on a limited number of screens. And, based on comments on the message board at SeeingBlack.com, many Blacks, particularly Black men, have determined not to see the movie and support it financially.

"I simply find the premise of 'Monster's Ball,' in which a character played by one of our most prized beauties, falls in love with a racist white prison guard who led her husband to his execution, deliberately insulting," said Miles Willis of Houston. "With its profanely incongruous and utterly implausible scenario, the plot of this film is a sneering, in-your-face taunt to all black men. 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!"

Others posting on the board, men in particular, said they would not go to see the film. "I refuse to support the movie with my hard earned dollars," said MrUnitesUs. "When we start recycling more of our Black dollars we will be make more of own movies and be in control of our own future."

It is the sentiment of these men and women that was not felt by the largely White male cadre of film critics who praised the movie and are quoted in print ads promoting it. Their sentiment has not been heard as part of discussion, gossip and hype concerning Oscar contenders. Though none of these filmgoers question the quality of Berry's performance, they are questioning the film's plot and message as a way of questioning an image of race and racism in these times.

I also do not belittle Berry's performance, but like the writers and thinkers of the 1930's who raised their objection to our continued depiction as maids, butlers and slaves, I want to leave this record of thought in the year 2002. We are all not bowled over by the Academy's recognition and supposed validation of "us" as artists. We are all not accepting of and happy for roles that turn the complexity of our history into a twisted joke much more heinous than anything in "Gone With the Wind."

Not all of us equate "making it" in Hollywood with the uplifting of Black people. Not all of us, as Ms. Berry said in her very moving, positive and respectful acceptance speech, want a time when they "won't see our color." Some of us do want our color seen, as well as our history and stories told from our perspective.

Some of us want something more than business as usual.

Esther Iverem's film reviews also appear on the entertainment pages of BET.com

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-- March 28, 2002

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