With all the high-fiving going on in 'hood's all over America, I think it's worth noting that, by it's traditional snubbing of minority actors, the Academy has left itself open to the charge that Oscar wouldn't reward a black woman until she performed semi-pornographically, and likely rewarded Denzel for playing a negative role model and, more to the point, for not being Russell Crowe. That's The Stink, the look on Washington's face.
awards for their performances in the films Training Day and
Monster's Ball. I seriously doubt anyone in the country was more
overjoyed about all of this than I was. The twin wins were my
reward for sitting through an interminable awards presentation
(and, hey, did Will Smith really punch out Ethan Hawke? Smith
and wife Jada Pinkett-Smith were there, and then they weren't,
and then Hawke was suddenly sporting a shiner). After a sobbing
Berry pleaded with the producers and bandleader for more time, a
more reserved Washington, announced with perfect delivery from
the perfect Julia Roberts ("I love my life... Denzel
Washington!"), gave a quieter homage to the legendary Sidney Portier, recipient of an honorary Oscar® that same evening,
before literally carrying Roberts off the stage towards the
tacky "news desk" set where the legends Donald Sutherland and
Glenn Close molted under the hot lights.
It was a perfect night, a historic occasion, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences recognizing two African Americans for the top grab in the same evening, an unprecedented co-opting of this, one of the last and most hallowed strongholds of White American values. There's been tons of celebrating, with self-back-patting verging on the Heimlich maneuver as Oscar® goes into media overdrive to exploit this turn of events. The barrier has finally been breached. The stone has been rolled away. The playing ground is finally level, and all is, at long last, right with there world.
This is the product we're selling this weekend: dinner conversation for families gathering for yet another excruciating forced social gathering to commemorate Charlton Heston's 46th parting of the Red Sea. It's White People Feel Good Time, and Black People Be Encouraged Week. In the wake of the terrible cloud that continues to hover over post-9-11 America, this unorchestrated burst of hope is certainly the right prescription. But, much as I'd like to join hands and sing Hosannas and We Shall Overcomes, I think it's important that we, as a people, do not suddenly revert to the naive stooges of 80's Reaganism, turning blind eye and deaf ear to the documented fact that the Oscar® race is likely the most mean-spirited contest outside of Washington DC. To turn blind eye and deaf ear to the politics of the Washington-Berry win is, I feel, a head-in-sand abdication of ourselves and our culture, an unwillingness to confront the ugliness that continues to divide us.
Merely raising the point that Denzel's win was more of a vote
against the frequently abrasive Russell Crowe— whose film A
Beautiful Mind swept the big prizes of Best Picture, Best
Director and Best Supporting Actress— was enough to get me
screamed at. Washington won the Golden Globe for Training Day
and, often, as the Globes go, so goes Oscar®. His win could
certainly be legit, but the larger body of evidence in the
heavily biased insider's club of AMPAS presents the looming
possibility that the Academy was motivated to not reward Crowe's
ego with back-to-back awards, and, in so doing, propelling him
into Tom Hanks orbit, an altitude for which Crowe is
ill-equipped to survive.
On first impression, Denzel's muted acceptance speech seemed
either a genuine attempt to not upstage the tearful Berry's
historic moment, or that he was bracing for the inevitable
backlash and indignity of the suggestion that his win was more a
vote against Crowe than a vote for Washington.
If I can say anything positive about the politics of race in the '02 Oscar® contest, it is that race likely played less of a role in these choices than simple meanness: it was more important to shut Crowe out than it was to break down any alleged race barrier to the Best Actor trophy. Which isn't to say that I'm not completely wrong: it could have been a straight win for Denzel on the merits. But I question how widely Training Day was in fact screened by a voting body composed largely of people who would not identify with the film, and by people whose scrutiny of the art would certainly have penalized Washington's hammy, over-the-top third act. Oscar® has overlooked far better performances from Denzel than Training Day, which leads me to believe this award was likely more for Washington's brilliant work in Malcolm X and/or The Hurricane, as this actor wuz certainly robbed for both performances.
Fixing a wrong and snubbing Crowe at the same time is a tempting twofer for the Academy. It's possible I am quite wrong, and actually, I hope so, but if Oswald in the book depository has taught us anything, it is to not take things at face value. Things like Washington, always the bridesmaid, finally holding the gold but with a face that speaks more to the cynical politics of the day than to the historic value of it.