#OscarsSoBlack: Comedian W. Kamau Bell on the 2002 Denzel Washington, Halle Berry Wins That Changed … Maybe Nothing? (Guest Column)
"We were led to believe that once the Oscars went kinda-black they could never go all the way back," Bell writes in an essay for THR on the 74th Academy Awards, where Sidney Poitier also was honored and Whoopi Goldberg hosted.
This story first appeared in the March 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The year was 2002. It was the blackest Academy Awards in history. And that record-breaking blackness boiled down to the number four. Just four African-Americans, and that year's Oscars was talked about like it was the NAACP Image Awards. Denzel Washington won best actor for Training Day. Halle Berry won best actress for Monster's Ball. Sidney Poitier received an Honorary Oscar for a lifetime of being Sidney Poitier. (Why that took until 2002 is worth a Michael Moore full-length documentary.) And the whole evening was hosted by Lady EGOT herself, Whoopi Goldberg. And yes, like a late-night infomercial, there was more. Will Smith was nominated for Ali, and … Well, actually, I think that was pretty much it, unless I'm missing a black sound effects editor or something. But the conventional wisdom coming out of that tiny tsunami of blackness was that this was the beginning of a sea change. We were led to believe that once the Oscars went kinda-black that they could never go all the way back. But go back they did. The following year, the only hint of blackness was Queen Latifah's best supporting actress nomination for the musical Chicago — and also the film that won for best foreign-language film called Nowhere in Africa, a German film that was in no-way about Africans. (Of course it was about white people in Africa.)
Will Smith, with wife Jada, was a nominee for 'Ali.'
And let's be absolutely clear, even the two wins that we got that night are kind of a problem. If you want to start a fight at a black family reunion, all you need to do is yell out, "What y'all think about Denzel winning an Oscar for Training Day and Halle winning for Monster's Ball?" Well before you can say, "Bill Cosby innocent!!!" you will have turned that happy gathering into a live Facebook thread.
Black Mama says, "Why does Denzel have to win an Oscar for not only playing a corrupt cop but for playing the most corrupt cop of all the corrupt cops? And why did I like it so much?"
Black Grandmama says, "And poor Halle. Why would they let Billy Bob Thornton do that to her?"
Poitier accepted his Honorary Oscar (having previously won one).
But even though we weren't all unified about how we felt about the roles they played, we had to celebrate. For me, Denzel winning that Oscar was like Michael Jordan winning the NBA championship. It was just confirmation of what I already knew: Denzel Washington is the greatest actor of all time. Period. And there are few things in Hollywood harder than being a working black actress. Halle Berry deserves all the awards just for that. I was proud of her even if in the middle of the Monster's Ball the black Grandmama in me yelled out, "No, Billy Bob! NOOOOOOOO!"
Black people rarely get to win for roles of quiet dignity like Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln or Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. We're too busy rising above black archetypes like Denzel Washington in Glory or playing unrewarded nuanced roles … like Denzel Washington in Philadelphia. It is indicative of black people's feelings on this that Halle Berry did win an NAACP Image Award in 2002, but it wasn't for Monster's Ball. It was for her role as "woman who is smarter than Hugh Jackman but also happens to have nice breasts" in Swordfish.
There was no sea change after 2002. Just like clearly there was no sea change after 12 Years a Slave won in 2014. Here we are again two short years later rebooting #OscarsSoWhite. And all of this is in preparation for the "Great Nate Parker-ing of 2017," when his film The Birth of a Nation is sure to be lauded as the beginning of a new era of the Academy's acknowledgment of diversity in film. And I don't see that happening, not without a rebellion similar to the one shown in his film.
And while we are talking diversity and Oscar winners, despite the fact that many words have been written about how the fastest path to Oscar gold is playing a person with disabilities, every time that Marlee Matlin is by herself, she is having a reunion of every living actor with disabilities who has ever won an Academy Award. The other person is dead. Damn.
Goldberg earned mixed reviews as host.
"Y'ALL THREW US A BONE"
In the year of #OscarsSoWhite, it might seem preposterous to think of a time when there were jokes about the prevalence of African-American actors nominated for Academy Awards. But it happened at the 2002 Oscars. In her opening monologue, Whoopi Goldberg — hosting for the third time — cracked of the Oscar campaigning, "So much mud has been thrown this year, all the nominees look black."
But what was hailed as a historic moment for African-Americans in the movie industry was rightly met with some skepticism. Here, figures behind the telecast and some of Hollywood's top black stars and creators recall the night that was supposed to change everything.
AUNJANUE ELLIS (Actress, Quantico) Halle Berry was incredibly brave in what she did. To get validated by that Oscar win, it felt affirming.
COURTNEY KEMP (Executive producer, Power) That was a transformative moment for me as a black woman because she talked in her speech about the shoulders she stood on. It was wonderful.
DANIELLE NICOLET (Actress, The Game) As a young actress, it meant everything to see someone who looked like me winning an award that wasn't for playing a slave or a housekeeper. To see Halle Berry up there for that movie — which was so dark and so outside of what you normally see African-American actors playing in films — was inspiring.
BRUCE VILANCH (Writer, Oscar broadcast) Going into the show, Russell Crowe was kind of favored to win for A Beautiful Mind. I think he had some incident — [he got into a physical altercation with a BBC executive after the BAFTA awards] — and it may have tilted in Denzel's favor.
LEEZA GIBBONS (Co-host, Oscar preshow) Denzel said in the media room he wasn't thinking of his victory in terms of history, but his win created a touching moment where everyone could sense how far things had come and how far they had to go.
Since 2002, seven black actors have won Oscars (Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Mo'Nique, Octavia Spencer, Lupita Nyong'o and Morgan Freeman), and 12 Years a Slave, a movie with a black writer and a black director, won best picture in 2014. But more than ever, the 2002 event seems like an aberration.
ADRIENNE MOORE (Actress, Orange Is the New Black) I remember watching it, and there was an undertone of, "Y'all threw us a bone so we won't complain."
JOE MORTON (Actor, Scandal) I was very happy all of that happened, but I remember the next day I went to the store and the woman behind the counter said, "It was a great night for you people last night." And I said, "I don't know about 'us people,' but it was a great night for those four individuals."
KEMP The diversity controversy isn't just about this year — it's about a whole bunch of years and movement.
SIDNEY POITIER (Actor) You have to understand what an important moment it was. We are all still looking for fundamental acceptance.
— By Thomas Golianopoulos, with additional reporting by Chris Gardner