The 74th Annual Academy Awards will go down in history as the year Oscar remembered that the announcements fall during the month we celebrate love and black history. This year, one primary question shifts ever so slightly: What does it take for a black lead performance to win? It’s the next step beyond being nominated.
Hollywood gets to pat itself on the back. Not only are three black leads nominated, but the Academy will present an honorary award to Sidney Poitier, the only black actor to win in a leading category in 1964 for Lilies of the Field. He was also nominated in 1959 for his lead role in The Defiant Ones.
For over 40 years, Poitier has been the measure of critical success for black actors. In making the official announcement more than a month prior to the performance-based nominations, Academy President Frank Pierson spoke of Poitier’s “extraordinary performance and unique presence on the screen, and for representing the motion picture industry with dignity, style and intelligence throughout the world.”
By honoring Poitier, Pierson suggested, (the Academy) “honors itself even more.” I wonder if he understood how his statement could be seen as a backhanded compliment. In some ways, the 74th Annual Awards will be seen as the Year of the Black Folks. There will be a bit of fanfare and a parade of black faces across our television screens. Hollywood will feel it has done the right thing and can get back to business as usual. Remember Oscar’s Year of the Woman?
Speaking of women, Halle Berry snagged a best actress nod for her work in Monster’s Ball. The press has focused on the gritty nature of the role, which forced Berry to forsake her natural beauty. This is pure Hollywood press condescension. It’s as if everyone has forgotten that this pretty woman burst onto the scene with her supporting turn as a junkie in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. There was also her unadorned work in Losing Isaiah. To cop boxing lingo, pound for pound, Berry’s darker, more powerful work has already shown far more depth than that of America’s official pretty woman, Julia Roberts. Let’s not forget that Roberts’ Oscar winning performance in last year’s Erin Brockovich was more about her pushup bra than her believability as a downtrodden mother and social avenger. Of course, Berry is not competing against the pretty (lightweight) woman, but Sissy Spacek’s equally charged performance from In The Bedroom.
Perennial black star power performer Denzel Washington remains in the mix, although he’s never won in the lead performance category. His work in Training Day is quite engaging, primarily for its subversion of his charisma and righteous fire. Washington gets to sink his entire being into the dirt as the corrupt cop who runs fellow nominee (supporting actor) Ethan Hawke through his paces on his first day.
On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with Washington’s nomination. I personally have been waiting for him to tackle more diverse roles and this one definitely qualifies, but is it worthy of an Oscar? Is it more worthy than some of his past work? Go back to Malcolm X or The Hurricane and judge for yourself. At least he’s snagged the supporting award, but what does that mean? Past supporting actor winners offer themselves up for the crapshoot. Look at Cuba Gooding Jr. who has gone to the Snow Dogs.
I hate to say it, but I’m not sure what Washington has to do to win. There are rumblings about him being a possible dark horse. Bite your tongue, all you punsters. There ain’t a scenario possible which ends up with him winning this year. In all likelihood, he will lose out to past co-star Russell Crowe. Remember the virtual serial killer movie, Virtuosity? Yeah, you and the same people who remember The Quick and the Dead. Two types of films Russell Crowe will probably never have to make again. Goody for him. I suppose there’s some testament to Washington for his ability to turn a role like this into something that could even lead to a nomination. That alone probably means he’s more deserving.
More than Will Smith?
For me, Will is the wild card in the lead actor category. Forget Sean Penn’s nomination for his take on the Rain Man/Forrest Gump shtick. Since the word first came out on Ali, Smith has been the focus of attention and, despite the film’s failure at the box office, Smith remains cocooned in a field of critical praise. His transformation into Ali is a quiet miracle. Through him, Ali becomes the story of the man behind the cultural myth. The film works best when Smith is silent. We get to see this great man, the Greatest, thinking. Who the hell knows what was on his mind, but Smith lets us see the process.
It’s a performance full of the same kind of subtle nuances people raved about from Crowe’s winning turn last year in Gladiator. Remember the general who became a slave who became a gladiator who gets to wander in the golden CGI fields of love and glory? Yeah, whatever. Smith’s Ali takes me on a far more compelling journey because there was a standard for Smith to compete against. Ali is there with him, and the audience, every step of the way. And Smith rises to the challenge. To him, I can only say, Rumble, young man, rumble.
“Oscar’s Brothers & Sister” was initially published on Alternet