A well-deserved Oscar for an ill-conceived movie

March 27, 2002|By Gregory Kane

LEAVING the Muvico theater complex at Arundel Mills mall on Monday afternoon, the middle-aged black woman was overheard saying, "I've seen better movies in my day, but maybe it was just our night."

She had just seen Monster's Ball, the film starring Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton. Berry won a best-actress Oscar for her performance, becoming the first black woman to achieve the feat. (Although you kind of get the feeling Cicely Tyson should have been standing in that spot long before Berry.)

The same night, Denzel Washington got his first best-actor Oscar - and second overall - for his brilliant, devastating performance as a cop over the edge in Training Day, the film that should leave you wanting to stay in the shower for at least three weeks after viewing it.

The media and African-American leadership had a field day after the double win by Berry and Washington. A milestone event, the media called it. A sign that Hollywood was prepared to judge performances on talent, not skin color, black leaders trumpeted. Even that middle-aged black woman at Muvico figured that, given the dreadful Monster's Ball, black folks may have lucked up. Maybe it was, indeed, our night.

Or was it? Victory, sometimes, is in the eye of the beholder. Winning an Oscar for the puerile and silly Monster's Ball may be to some no victory at all. The plot concerns a racist corrections officer - played by Thornton - who oversees the execution of Berry's husband. After one sexual encounter with Berry's character, a black woman he barely knows, Thornton's character is changed from Theodore Bilbo - the quintessential Southern racist - into a man who is channeling 19th-century Radical Republican Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, a racial equality enthusiast who can't do enough for black folks. This sounds like a movie that would have worked better had it been promoted as science fiction.

Berry's character, having lost her husband, then loses her son. She responds by inviting Thornton's character into her house, tearing her clothes off and pleading with him to have sex with her. Anybody notice the stereotype of the oversexed black woman coming into play here?

That hasn't been mentioned much. White commentators have steered clear of it. Blacks have discussed it only in private. Perhaps that's fair to Berry, who did, in fact, give a fine performance. But since black folks are still dissing Jimmie Walker for his "J.J." character on the television show Good Times more than 20 years after it went off the air, you have to wonder if a little intraracial double standard isn't at work.

As for Hollywood types finally recognizing the acting talent of "people of color": Who knows? The folks who vote for Academy Awards have done some weird things in the past. Occasionally, that weirdness has actually benefited black actors.

Cuba Gooding Jr. won an Oscar for best supporting actor in 1997, a year the award should have gone to James Woods, whose portrayal of white supremacist assassin Byron de la Beckwith in Ghosts of Mississippi was chillingly accurate. But Hollywood was clearly more impressed by Gooding jumping around screaming, "Show me the money!" in Jerry Maguire.

Two years ago, black actor Michael Clarke Duncan was nominated for best supporting actor for playing a simple, dimwitted, noble Negro in The Green Mile. Duncan didn't win, but that's not the point. Two of his co-stars in The Green Mile - Sam Rockwell and Doug Hutchison - gave better performances and made the film what it was. They probably didn't get as much as a Twinkie between them.

Similar myopia probably wasn't at work this year. Berry and Washington deserved their awards. That's the upside. The downside is that Hollywood, in light of Monster's Ball, might be inclined to delve further into the topic of what, by now, Americans should refer to with screeching hilarity as "race relations."

It's ironic that Hollywood chose this year's Oscar night to give a lifetime achievement award to Sidney Poitier, who was the first African-American to receive an award for best actor. Poitier started his film career in 1950, when he appeared in Joseph Mankiewicz's No Way Out, which, after 52 years, is still the best thing Hollywood has ever done on race relations. It's far above Monster's Ball. At the end of No Way Out, the hostility between Poitier's character and his adversary, played by Richard Widmark, oozes from the screen. It's an ending far more realistic and riveting than the goofy conclusion to Monster's Ball.

Yes, March 24, 2002, may have been "our night" at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for African-Americans. But if Hollywood wants to do us some real favors, it can start by keeping flicks like Monster's Ball to a minimum.

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