The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, February 28, 2005

The Oscars

In a few hours after I write this, the Oscars will be broadcast. One question on Oscar-Watchers' lips is: who will win Best Actor? And Jamie Foxx is the front-runner, possibly the first time I've seen a black actor as front-runner in a film where he deserves to win. Oh, Denzel SHOULD have been for "Hurricane," or "Malcom X," but wasn't. It got embarassing--the Oscars are seen in more homes around the world than almost any other show. To admit that in all their history, only one non-Caucasian ever won a best Actor or Actress award was to admit that there was something odd going on in our supposedly egalitarian society.
Could it be that only Caucasians can act? Nah. Maybe Hollywood is so racist that the craft guilds will only vote for "one of their own." Could that be it? Well, having traveled the country, I can tell you with no hesitation that Southern California is one of the least-racist parts of America. so whatever was going on, it wasn't a problem exclusive to Hollywood.
For the record, I'm willing to take the position that the awards given out are more-or-less fair. In other words, a good actor loses over and over again, and the Academy tries to give them props with an award in another year, even if that film is weaker. Thus, Denzel gets the award for "Training Day" that he should have gotten for "Hurricane." The political shit-storm that swirled around him when people began to complain that Rubin Carter might have been guilty was considered (by some) racist, but things evened out when Russell Crowe's "A Beautiful Mind" failed to garner an Oscar because of rumors that the titular mathematician had uttered racist slurs. Both charges have nothing to do with the performances of the respective actors. But Will Smith's nomination for "Ali"? Well, in a weak year, maybe. Halle Berry's win for "Monster's Ball"? Separate from social context, this was a terrific performance in an unconvincing film. Add social context, and you have a powerful performance in a LOATHSOME film. Casting P. Diddy as her doomed husband made a subtle point that would only have been improved had they cast O.J.
So Denzel won for "Training Day", as he did for "Glory". And Halle won for "Monster's Ball." The nasty side of my personality notes that the Black man wins for films in which he dies. And the black woman wins for a film chiefly notable for her being sexually available to a White man--again, at a time when sexually explicit scenes with non-Caucasian males are non-existant. am I being paranoid?
Let's say that Jamie Foxx wins for "Ray." Does this mean things have changed massively? Well, yes and no. It is evidence that things are slowly changing. Black folks like to say nothing has changed, and white folks like to say that everything is just fine. The truth, of course, is somewhere between the two. Ray is a fabulous movie with a fabulous performance. He is certainly presented as a sexual being, although there is no actual nookie on-screen. I takes what I can gets, so I tended to treat "Ray" as a success and a positive sign. But how many Iconic black figures like Ray Charles are there for actors to mine? He was beloved, possibly the single most important musical performer of the 20th Century (Frank Sinatra once said that Ray Charles was the only genius in the business.) He was blind, which made him less threatening. And, of course, he died just before the film opened. So what is a black actor to do? Find another iconic, genius-level, disabled, recently-deceased performer to play? And do we have a break in the "Denzel" pattern, or an extension of it? Dead is dead, after all.
Remember Barnes' rule of black men in SF/Action films: a black man will be too young, too old, too gay, too fat, or too dead to reproduce. That is changing, to the degree that films like "Deep Blue Sea" actually play with the audience's expectations. But you have to ask why it became a cliche in the first place. To the degree that my friends used to ask, when they knew I was going to see a science fiction film: "how'd they kill the brother this time?" And there are people out there who wonder why there are so few black SF writers? It boggles my mind that there are any at all.
If Jamie Foxx wins, it will be a good thing. But I'm looking for the day that a black man can win an Oscar for a performance in which he is a powerful, sexual, mythic being who survives the movie. Or a black woman can win one without going down on Billy Bob Thornton.

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