Oscar Door Barely Open

Hollywood is already looking to next year's Oscars. But some of us African American movie goers are still working out mixed feelings about Denzel Washington and Halle Berry winning this year's Academy Awards for best actor and actress.

Washington and Berry have been at the top of their game for some time now. They had successfully distanced themselves from the "urban ghetto dramas" and stereotypical roles that plague the acting careers of so many African Americans. Usually playing a serious, honorable guy, Washington finally won for portraying a bad cop who uses the "N-word" in every other sentence, has a mistress and an illegitimate child and murders people in cold blood over money. Now, was this really a breakthrough role? Or was it a role with which the Academy felt comfortable, one that fit its perception of what is real and believable about African Americans?

Even Washington, who may well have delighted in showing his range by playing a predator, alluded in a post-award interview that this wasn't his best work; he also said he was surprised by the nomination. But what image is being promulgated here? Would Washington have received such recognition for a strong acting role as a leader?

Berry has also played a variety of roles, especially considering the rather limited opportunities for actresses in general -- and African American actresses in particular -- and the film industry's tendency to pigeonhole attractive actresses. It is interesting that the two roles for which she received the most critical acclaim were "Losing Isaiah" (opposite Jessica Lange) and "Monster's Ball." Berry may well have considered the latter Academy Award role the chance of a lifetime to display the breadth of her talent. But in both roles, Berry played the kind of stereotype typically offered to African American women in Hollywood. In "Monster's Ball," she played a down-and-out Black woman who, after her son dies, finds redemption through a white man; moreover, one who played a role in executing her husband.

True, Berry did receive some attention for "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" and "Swordfish" (opposite John Travolta), but attention for the former probably resulted more from Dandridge's life than Berry's acting performance. And -- let's be honest -- the latter received attention more for Berry going topless than for her acting.

What message does winning for playing such roles convey to aspiring young African American actors and actresses who have dreams of making it big one day in Hollywood? It is a message that is not peculiar to Hollywood. Perhaps the greatest hindrance to African American achievement is white resistance to seeing Blacks in non-stereotypical ways. We are continually seen as criminals, welfare mothers, studs, ne'er-do-wells and the like.

When an African American person achieves high social status, such as the late Ron Brown, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, they are often described as having "transcended race." Did Brown transcend race? Or did he transcend the roles that whites, in their minds, ascribe to African American men? As James Baldwin wrote, "the will of the people, or the State, is revealed by the State's institutions. There [is] not...a single American institution which is not a racist institution."

Of course, African Americans have received recognition for playing atypical roles. The Golden Globes -- awarded by foreign journalists -- tend to recognize the work of African Americans that extends beyond the stereotypes. But the Oscars are the pinnacle, and they are largely indicative of the general culture of Hollywood. Look at which African Americans have won awards for supporting roles:

Cuba Gooding Jr. won for playing an over-emotional, loudmouth athlete in "Jerry McGuire," and will forever be remembered for a phrase as annoying as "Wassup" -- "Show me the money!" Whoopi Goldberg won an award for her performance in "Ghost," playing a wisecracking, though servile, ex-con who allows Patrick Swayze's character to use her body as a medium. Denzel Washington won for his performance in "Glory," playing an ex-slave with a problem with authority, who finally submits to Matthew Broderick's character and becomes a loyal soldier under his command.

The noticeable exception -- and only other African American to win a Oscar since 1980 -- was Louis Gossett, Jr., in "An Officer and a Gentleman." Gossett played a strong, dignified officer with many admirable qualities. Gossett's role, however, still wasn't too much of a stretch for the Academy. He was still a foul-mouthed, loud talking "military man" -- a role that had presented itself many times before (and after) "An Officer and a Gentleman." Morgan Freeman, known for playing rather powerful and non-stereotypical roles, has yet to win an Oscar, and his three Oscar nominations were for playing a violent pimp ("Street Smart"), a chauffeur ("Driving Ms. Daisy") and a convicted murder ("The Shawshank Redemption").

Have things changed since Hattie McDaniel, playing a maid, became the first African American to win an Oscar for "Gone with the Wind" in 1939? Of course they have. But why has it come at a glacial pace?

Until Hollywood is willing to award an Oscar to an African American man playing a strong, positive leading role like Russell Crowe's in "Gladiator," and an African American woman for playing a heroic role like Julia Roberts' in "Erin Brockovich," the Academy has not overcome its resistance to recognizing African Americans in their full complexity.

Thaxton is a doctoral candidate in the sociology department of Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. He is completing his dissertation on the influence of race in the capital punishment process in Georgia in the 1990s.


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