- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

After becoming only the second black actor in Hollywood history to win an Academy Award for a leading role, actor Denzel Washington was asked if there will come a time in this country when the racial identity of a performer is a mere afterthought.
In one of the most telling lines of a long but historic evening at Sunday's Oscar presentations, Mr. Washington challenged a newspaper reporter to take this "wonderful opportunity" and simply state that "actor wins," as opposed to "black actor wins."
I'm feeling you, Brother Washington, but not a chance. Let us luxuriate in the marvelous, momentous moment.
Once again, black Americans are conflicted by the duality of their existence in America, where race still colors our consciousness and our culture.
We black Americans are at once elated that yet another color barrier is finally broken at the same time we are frustrated that we still are not judged with colorblindness. While we want to celebrate a "black" victory, we wish this to be viewed as a victory for all Americans.
What makes these awards for black actors seem significant is the symbolism that "we've finally arrived," as television charactor George Jefferson used to say; "I am somebody," as the Rev. Jesse Jackson says; "How do you like me now?" as the rappers ask.
We are finally being portrayed as integral members of the multicultural American melting pot.
As director John Singleton noted in a television interview yesterday, these roles are more significant because "American films are now more reflective of America."
The reason Mr. Washington and other black actors today can portray police officers, judges, politicians, journalists and doctors as well as entertainers and sports figures is because blacks now occupy those professions off the screen in numbers undreamed of in this country in 1939 when Hattie McDaniel received the first Oscar for a supporting role in "Gone With the Wind" as a black mammy.
Whereas black actors such as Bill Robinson were placed in bit roles where they interacted with white characters in a cursory manner that could easily be edited for intolerant Southern audiences, today it is not uncommon to watch films like "Monster's Ball" in which complex interracial interactions are central to the theme.
Halle Berry, who won the Oscar for best actress in "Monster's Ball," was most profound when she said, "This is bigger than me." Movies, maybe, but art must imitate or illuminate life. For real, universal themes transcend our differences.
Is it any wonder why, coast to coast, black folks awakened one another with early-morning screams and shouts about the Oscars that Miss Berry and Mr. Washington (for "Training Day") won on the same incredible evening that Sidney Poitier received a lifetime-achievement award and Whoopi Goldberg hosted the star-studded event?
It was "Black by Popular Demand," as one comedian said. Some of us never believed we'd live to see such a day. "Halle-lujah," as the CNN headline stated.
I rarely watch award shows because they are usually boring and usually disappointing from the black perspective. But I wanted to be a witness to history if it was indeed in the making at the Kodak Theater. After all, it's been nearly 30 years since three black actors were nominated in the leading-role category Diana Ross for "Lady Sings the Blues" and Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield for "Sounder" in 1973.
Quite honestly, my money was on Nicole Kidman for best actress in "Moulin Rouge" and Russell Crowe for best actor in "A Beautiful Mind."
Already suffering the after- effects of a moving tribute to Mr. Poitier, I must concede that my daughter and I held hands and shed a few tears when the overwhelmend Miss Berry accepted the award for "all the nameless, faceless women of color who now have a chance because the door has been opened," especially those slighted by the movie industry for 73 years, including Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne.
I immediately assumed that Miss Berry's win was a loss for Mr. Washington and for Will Smith, who mysteriously diasppeared for the rest of the evening. But when Julia Roberts said, "I love my life" as she opened the envelope containing the name of the best actor winner, I knew that her next words would be "Denzel Washington."
My heart did somersaults. I know I was not alone. I have one friend who still can't believe that two black actors won simultaneously, and she's waiting for a recount or a recall. "Have they taken the Oscars back yet?" she said first thing yesterday morning, then later in the day.
Tom Joyner on his radio "Morning Show" was quick to compile "Little Known Black Facts," such as the item that "only 26 blacks have been nominated for Oscars in acting" in Academy Award history, and that "blacks have not fared well behind the scenes." Only John Singleton has been nominated for best director in 1992.
This watershed moment will go down in black history like Jesse Owens winning a gold medal at the Olympics or Joe Louis winning the heavyweight title or Tiger Woods winning the Masters or, more importantly, Martin Luther King winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
Our hope is that with Miss Berry and Mr. Washington breaking the Academy Awards barriers, the old, black negative stereotypes will be torn down as well. What a wonderful opportunity.
Adrienne T. Washington's e-mail is [email protected]


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