As Halle Berry elegantly strode to the podium to accept her best actress Oscar, the first for a black woman, she wept uncontrollably and gasped, “This moment is so much bigger than me.” Just as revealing was Denzel Washington’s resolute dispassion as he accepted his best actor Oscar, only the second for a black man, by glancing at the trophy and uttering through a half-smile, “Two birds in one night, huh?” Their contrasting styles–one explicit, the other implied–say a great deal about the burdens of representing the race in Hollywood.
Berry electrified her audience, speaking with splendid intelligence and rousing emotion of how her Oscar was made possible by the legendary likes of Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll. And in a stunning display of sorority in a profession riven by infighting and narcissism, Berry acknowledged the efforts of contemporary black actresses Angela Bassett, Jada Pinkett Smith and Vivica Fox. But it was when Berry moved from ancestors and peers to the future that she spoke directly to her award’s symbolic meaning. She gave the millions who watched around the globe not only a sorely needed history lesson but a lesson in courageous identification with the masses. Berry tearfully declared that her award was for “every nameless, faceless woman of color” who now has a chance, since “this door has been opened.”
Berry’s remarkable courage and candor are depressingly rare among famed blacks with a lot on the line: money, prestige, reputation and work. Many covet the limelight’s payoffs but cower at its demands. Even fewer speak up about the experiences their ordinary brothers and sisters endure–and if they are honest, that they themselves too often confront–on a daily basis. To be sure, there is an unspoken tariff on honesty among the black privileged: If they dare go against the grain, they may be curtailed in their efforts to succeed or cut off from the rewards they deserve. Or they may endure stigma. Think of the huge controversy over basketball great Charles Barkley’s recent comments–that racism haunts golf, that everyday black folk still fight bigotry and that black athletes are too scared to speak up–that are the common banter of most blacks. What Berry did was every bit as brave: On the night she was being singled out for greatness, she cast her lot with anonymous women of color who hungered for her spot, and who might be denied a chance for no other reason than that they are yellow, brown, red or black. Her achievement, she insisted, was now their hope.
At first blush, it may seem that Denzel Washington failed to stand up and “represent.” But that would be a severe misreading of the politics of signifying that thread through black culture. Looking up to the balcony where Sidney Poitier sat–having received an honorary Oscar earlier and delivered a stately speech of bone-crushing beauty–Washington said, “Forty years I’ve been chasing Sidney….” He joked with Poitier, and the academy, by playfully lamenting his being awarded an Oscar on the same night that his idol was feted. Washington, for a fleeting but telling moment, transformed the arena of his award into an intimate platform of conversation between himself and his progenitor that suggested, “This belongs to us, we are not interlopers, nobody else matters more than we do.” Thus, Washington never let us see him sweat, behaving as if it was natural, if delayed, that he should receive the highest recognition of his profession. His style, the complete opposite of Berry’s, was political in the way that only black cool can be when the stakes are high and its temperature must remain low, sometimes beneath the detection of the powers that be that can stamp it out. This is not to be confused with spineless selling out. Nor is it to be seen as yielding to the cowardly imperative to keep one’s mouth shut in order to hang on to one’s privilege. Rather, it is the strategy of those who break down barriers and allow the chroniclers of their brokenness to note their fall.
Both approaches–we can call them conscience and cool–are vital, especially if Hollywood is to change. Conscience informs and inspires. It tells the film industry we need more producers, directors and writers, and executives who can greenlight projects by people of color. It also reminds the black blessed of their obligation to struggle onscreen and off for justice. Cool prepares and performs. It pays attention to the details of great art and exercises its craft vigorously as opportunity allows, thus paving the way for more opportunities. The fusion of both approaches is nicely summed up in a lyric by James Brown: “I don’t want nobody to give me nothin’/Just open up the door, I’ll get it myself.”