The 74th Academy Awards, presented in February of 2002, covered films released in 2001, and will forever have the distinct honor of being the night when African-Americans received the two top acting prizes, after decades of near-invisibility on the world’s largest film stage. Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball) and Denzel Washington (Training Day) basked in the seemingly endless adoration of their peers and the world, and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t gulping down jugs of the colored Kool-Aid, believing that this was the turning point for performers of color. This was going to guarantee better roles for blacks and Latinos on the big screen and, more importantly, kick off a more culturally diverse representation of the world that I lived in.
Less than a year later, I remember conducting a phone interview with Delroy Lindo for The Core where I asked him about the impact of Berry and Washington’s big night in Hollywood and, of course, having him blast holes in my rosy optimism with buck shots of practical reality. Those wins, he pointed out, may have been big for Berry and Washington, but they had little to no real meaning on his ability to land jobs. He was still just a black character actor who wasn’t on the shortlist of black actors who could carry a mainstream project (the shortest of shortlist which only included Washington and Will Smith at that point — arguably still the only two names the studio gatekeepers dare to speak).
I wanted to argue with him, to try to convince him that he was wrong, if only from a devil’s advocate perspective, but I knew it was true.
Spending as much time I do in darkened theaters, I witnessed the proof, day-in and day-out. But, damnit, I wanted to have some shred of hope to cling to. More Academy Award wins — Jamie Foxx (Best Actor for Ray), Forest Whitaker (Best Actor for The Last King of Scotland), Morgan Freeman (Best Supporting Actor for Million Dollar Baby), Jennifer Hudson (Best Supporting Actress for Dreamgirls), Mo’Nique (Best Supporting Actress for Precious) and Octavia Spenser (Best Supporting Actress for The Help) — and a smattering of additional nominations throughout the 10-year period still failed to spark the reel revolution I sought.
I would have been willing to sacrifice all of that for more than the occasional glimpse of truly racially and culturally blended narrative communities, instances where diversity could pass before us without drawing attention to itself, because to be black or Latino or Asian or lesbian or a progressive Catholic isn’t a badge that one wears on a sleeve, ready and eager for debate at a moment’s notice.
Black men, for instance, are not all indignant and righteous or prone to running around in drag. Some of us, as evidenced in the indie drama Four by Joshua Sanchez, are everyday family men like Joe (Best Male Lead Independent Spirit Award nominee Wendell Pierce) who cruise Internet sites and gay bars for young inexperienced lovers. And then there is the slow groundswell of praise for Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, featuring a quietly powerful turn from Emayatzy Corinealdi (an Independent Spirit Award nominee for Best Female Lead) as a woman in limbo as she waits for her husband to finish serving his prison term before returning to medical school. Talk about waiting to exhale; watching that film and performance led me to dream again, to hope for change that now seems on the verge of reel manifestation.
As a judge for this year’s Black Reel Awards, I am in the process of screening the shorts and features up for consideration, and at the conclusion of each new film I catch myself swelling with real pride because, through these independently produced films, I feel like the reflection I’ve been seeking sharpens as the frames settle into place. These films capture the cultural coalition that the political pundits have been preaching about since Election Night.
Black women fight to protect their white female lovers and their unborn babies. A white deaf poet dares to stand proud on a stage and spit deaf identity poetics with the support of his strong black woman. A black man discovers the key to time travel thanks to an old cassette player and attempts to save another’s life. This is what my America story looks and sounds like.
Black, real and finally ready to seize the spotlight.
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