Day after Oscars, minority groups challenge industry

Diversity: Wins by Berry, Washington seen as opportunity to urge filmmakers to continue breaking down racial barriers.

March 26, 2002|By Michael Wilmington | Michael Wilmington,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Denzel Washington and Halle Berry made history Sunday with Academy Award wins, and for many, it was a sweet victory, long past due. Nonetheless, minority groups say diversity must extend beyond Hollywood's glamour night - and include other groups such as Asians, Hispanics and American Indians.

"If this is a sign that Hollywood is finally ready to give opportunity and judge performance based on skill and not on skin color, then it is a good thing," said Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"However, if this proves to be a momentary flash in a long history of neglect, then Hollywood has failed to learn the real meaning of equality."

But seeing the two winners on stage with the evening's African-American emcee (the often acid-tongued Whoopi Goldberg) on a night when Sidney Poitier was one of the honorary award winners, made quite a statement. The double victory for Washington and Berry - who became the first blacks to win best actor and best actress trophies in a single year - was one of those symbolic triumphs that signal social watersheds, even though their recognition was for the kinds of roles they played as much as for the facts of their race.

In 1939, when Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American actor to win an Oscar for Gone With the Wind, it was a bittersweet victory. McDaniel's role was blasted by progressive African-American groups, and she was straitjacketed for much of the rest of her career in similar, stereotyped roles.

Now Washington has won for his part as Alonzo Harris in the violent police thriller Training Day, playing a charismatic but corrupt narcotics detective who bullies his narcotics squad trainee (Ethan Hawke) while ruling the roost in a Los Angeles battle zone. Berry beat the field for her steamy part in Monster's Ball as Leticia Musgrove, a Southern mother doubly bereaved - by the execution of her husband and the car-accident death of her son.

Both movies are frank, verbally profane and violent. They show things unshowable in the time of Gone With the Wind or even 20 or 30 years later.

But mostly, they showed that African-Americans could be portrayed onscreen as complex human beings - part good, part bad - rather than the bigot-fodder of decades ago: the cardboard villains, comical personas or long-suffering saints and mammies of Hollywood's Golden Age. That battle, at least onscreen, was settled long ago. But this year's double Oscar seals the contract.

Nonetheless, some organizations say minorities will have power in front of the camera only when there is more minority representation behind the scenes as directors, writers and producers.

"What's historic about equality? Historic for me will be when all people of color are represented and are capable of garnering these awards," said Sonny Skyhawk, president of the advocacy group American Indians in Film.

Skyhawk, an actor who's appeared in Young Guns II and Geronimo: An American Legend, joined other show-business minority leaders yesterday in praising the Academy Awards while pointing out that the Oscars and entertainment industry were overdue for broader racial representation.

"This is the new dynamic," said Felix Sanchez, president of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. "I think we are going to see more and more success stories for minorities. ... I hope this means [studios] are going to tap more writers with diverse stories and cast more actors that represent the true face of American diversity."

Washington, who received a supporting award for 1989's Glory, Sunday became the first black man to be named best leading actor since Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field. Now that a trail has been blazed for blacks, he suggested, other minority actors must continue to fight for more significant roles.

"I don't recall seeing any Asian-Americans, women or men, being recognized and not too many Latin Americans," Washington said on NBC's Today show. "So there is still a lot of work [to be done]."

Other black actors predicted Berry's and Washington's wins could signal that studios are more comfortable giving prestige roles to minorities.

"It's one step at a time," said former L.A. Law co-star Blair Underwood. "There's no way that you can go back from the progress made tonight. That window has been opened."

Michael Wilmington is a film critic for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Editor's note: Due to the length of the Academy Awards broadcast and production deadlines, early editions of yesterday's Sun did not reflect awards given later in the program, including best actor and actress.

And the winners are ...

Film: A Beautiful Mind

Director: Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind

Actor: Denzel Washington, Training Day

Actress: Halle Berry, Monster's Ball

Supporting Actor: Jim Broadbent, Iris

Supporting Actress: Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind

Screenplay: (written for the screen) Julian Fellowes, Gosford Park

Animated Film: Shrek

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