Hollywood made history last month as it awarded its first ever Oscar for Best Actress to an African American, Halle Berry for Monster's Ball. The 74th Academy Awards was also unique in that it marked the first time that African Americans won both Best Actress and Actor (Denzel Washington, Training Day) in the same year. At the same time, the night marked the first occasion that an African American, Sidney Poitier, was awarded an Oscar for lifetime achievement.Although media coverage focused on the historical aspect of the night, in the days after, media coverage most often expressed admiration for their performances. As the Los Angeles Times (March 26) reported, "Much of the talk, whether over lattes or radio waves, was about how Berry and Washington were recognized for their work, not for being black.
Coverage had suggested that there were fears that Berry and Washington's race would overshadow their performances.
Reporting also noted how it had been nearly 40 years since an African American won for Best Actor, and that there had been a 74-year drought for African Americans in the Best Actress category. The celebrating of the dual victory was tempered in some reports by those who cautioned that real signs that Hollywood was colorblind would only be evident if there were no such lapse between now and the next wins.
NAACP chairman Julian Bond told The Boston Globe (March 26), "Only time will tell whether the symbol becomes the substance.
He elaborated that he expected to see a more equitable representation of African Americans among those award nominees and winners as the industry hires more minorities.
Numerous reports discussed Hollywood's past relations with African Americans. A New York Times editorial (March 26) said the film industry "has been racially divided and racially impenitent for most of its history.
A black actress went a step further, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (March 26), "The battle to keep black people down has been so insidious and films have played a great role in that."
In the midst of all of the celebrating and hopes for a better future, there were a number of reports that state that even today, African American actors still lack quality roles that would allow them to display a broader range of talent. The Philadelphia Inquirer (March 26) wrote that up-and-coming talent such as Omar Epps and Mekhi Phifer "are being ghettoized in genre fare such as action films, hip-hop movies, and features with sports themes."
There were several observations to the effect that not only does Hollywood need a more multi-ethnic cast of characters in front of the camera, it also needs people of color in all industry sectors - writers, directors, producers, casting agents, technicians, etc.
While everyone seemed to agree on what was necessary to improve Hollywood, there also seemed to be a reluctant consensus among both blacks and whites that the industry can't change overnight. As The Washington Post (March 26) reported, "Many cautioned that old realities were still in place, and that progress would remain a struggle in a system where blacks rarely make the financial decisions."
While there was reason to celebrate the Oscar wins, several voices, including Denzel Washington's, suggested that the day to look forward to was one when an African American could win Best Actor or Actress, and the media would not make a big deal of the racial aspect.
Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.