A Child at the Oscars

Sidney Poitier won his Lilies of the Field Academy Award just before my 11th birthday. That event was part of the world opening up to me and changing for everyone. There had already been the March on Washington featuring Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a hometown civil rights march in The Motor City and the New York World’s Fair was about to open. In that context, the Motion Picture Academy’s nod to Poitier indicated some large acknowledgment and even greater potential. After all, it was era of upward mobility, a period when many white Americans (and Hollywoodians) pledged allegiance to equality. A 60s child could feel all this without being able to articulate it.

Many years later, Halle Berry won her Monster’s Ball Academy Award, accepting it with childlike, halting expressions of shock and naivete. No matter how many pundits and industry boosters make big claims for Berry’s win (and Denzel Washington’s), it lacks a larger social resonance. Berry’s nearly catatonic display was cringe-inducing; it revealed contemporary black pop artists’ isolation and lack of grounding. They conflate getting-over with social progress, completely distorting the Civil Rights Era criterion that connected personal progress with social movement. Berry’s and Washington’s Oscar wins this year have nothing to do with justice or equality. Actually, this small event disguises Hollywood’s pervasive racism, more insidious now because it includes the black winners’ misguided gratitude–a regression after the Civil Rights Era (what Poitier called “the difficult times”). They grovel for acceptance by Hollywood’s racist institution, like pets wanting petting, children hungry for candy.

Berry and Washington–along with their celebrants–confuse careerism with racial uplift. They convince themselves that the world benefits from their being chosen. Nothing encapsulates showbiz enslavement more definitively than the reactions of a hysterical childlike actress and a childish actor. Denzel’s more composed response was also cringe-inducing. It was fatuous–with the hollow tone of stentorian churchy practice, beginning “God is great. Yes, yes.” Well, yes, He is, but any good Sunday School student can tell you “God is not mocked.”

Sadly, this year’s Oscar hype would have the public believe that the lead performance nominations for three black actors are milestones in the history of American pluralism. It reduces a racial minority’s ongoing struggle to a showbiz contest, as if Hollywood popularity and acceptance is all good for black people.

Fact is, these particular nominations–if you actually look at the roles being considered–are embarrassments to every thinking American. Washington in Training Day plays the screen’s most heinous, law-breaking police officer as a black renegade–scene by scene refuting the headline truth about Los Angeles’ recent Ramparts precinct scandal and New York’s Louima, Diallo and Dorismonde police brutality cases. Berry in Monster’s Ball. plays a single mother subject to endless humiliation–verbal, physical and psychic abuse; she plays out a fantasy of the hottie mama on welfare who literally begs to be taken care of. Will Smith in Ali, merely impersonates the legendary Muhammad Ali reducing the 60s-70s phenomenon to a charisma-less enigma.

These characterizations are reactionary throwbacks, each is a sign of that national epidemic that deforms discourse on race: denial.

While many Americans treat movie-going as a means of escape, movies sometimes reveal the country’s political unconscious as well as celebrate its ideals. To judge by the Academy Awards, last year’s films floated more fantasies of African American crime, demoralization and–what stereotype is left?– celebrity. At the movies African Americans cannot escape opprobrium and we all get our racial fears reinforced.

The Oscars perpetuate biased, simplistic thinking by rewarding actors who function within the industry as ideological pawns. In the absence of a social movement that might produce widely recognized leaders and a united front among enlightened Americans, this year’s Oscar nominees are no more than tokens–a Wanted poster icon, a pornographic pin-up and a pop star as the measure of black American experience. How many people understand the insult of these limited portrayals?

Things were clearer nearly 40 years ago when the Motion Picture Academy voted Poitier Best Actor, making him the only African American to win a lead category Oscar until now. (This year, the Academy redundantly honored Poitier with a career achievement award.) Poitier’s first win, on the crest of the Civil Rights movement, also made up for the previous failure to reward his overlooked performance in the classic A Raisin in the Sun. While there was a whiff of Academy self-congratulation in that prize, it wasn’t entirely removed from authentic commitment to doing the right thing, for the right reasons. For Poitier, careerism and activism, moral conviction and personal ambition were one in the same.

In the years since, Hollywood movies have become more or less visibly segregated yet black screen portraiture has accommodated ever more nefarious stereotypes, making racism more entrenched in the film making system. The result: last year’s most scandalous black performances are emblems of the country’s racial regression. To applaud Washington, Berry and Smith’s self abasement is to accept the hard-hearted fallacy that racism no longer exists. See, now we can defame black people and not feel guilty about it. They’re even willing to victimize themselves.

None of the films represented by these nominations deal honestly with the statistical facts of police corruption, the nightmares faced by unskilled women in the workforce or the controversy–the shock–of Ali’s or any black individual’s public pursuit of freedom (the latter failing goes back to Spike Lee turning the thorny Malcolm X into a marketable commodity). And it’s no surprise that shills promoting this year’s Oscar hopefuls have not dealt honestly with the current state of black movie star careerism. The do-anything-for-a-role practices of Washington, Berry and Smith separate them from Sidney Poitier whose principled career maneuvers – and belief that movies can ennoble black American life – made him a standard bearer as well as a great actor.

Our anti-political correctness climate promotes distaste for images of black heroism and rectitude. That may be why in recent years, the Academy ignored such outstanding performances as Eddie Murphy in The Klumps: Nutty Professor 2, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, Thandi Newton, Kimberly Elise and Beah Richards in Beloved, Harry Belafonte in Kansas City; Vivica A. Fox in Two Can Play That Game, Jamie Foxx in Any Given Sunday, Charles Dutton in Cookie’s Fortune, Gloria Foster in The Matrix, Sanaa Lathan in Love and Basketball, Harry Lennix in Titus, Lisa Raye in The Players Club, Djimon Hounsou in Amistad. These performances were in Poitier’s creative and self-respecting tradition. Rare examples of black actors blending talent with principle, politics with artistry. But none were invited to the party.

“Who are you wearing?”, the question most often asked of celebrities on the red carpet, is meant to promote fashion designers rather than interrogate actors’ motives. But this year it seemed to point to Poitier’s legacy. Imagine what valiant images Washington, Berry and Smith might produce if they put on his armor.

The sad fact is, despite the rhetoric of today’s hiphop culture, politics are out of fashion for Black artists in Hollywood. No one should accept the Oscars without making demands, or at least asking Why!

From June, 2002