HOLLYWOOD _ The Oscars made history Sunday night and for many it was a sweet victory, long past due.
The double victory for Denzel Washington and Halle Berry _ who became the first African-Americans to win Best Actor and Best Actress trophies in a single year _ was one of those symbolic triumphs that signal social watersheds.
Seeing the two winners on stage with the evening’s African-American emcee, Whoopi Goldberg, on a night when Sidney Poitier was one of the honorary awards winners, made a unique impact _ but it was for the kinds of roles they played as well as the facts of their race and joint high achievement.
In 1939, Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American actor to win an Oscar for “Gone With the Wind.”
It was a bittersweet victory; McDaniel’s role was blasted by progressive African-American groups, and she was straitjacketed for much of the rest of her career in similar, stereotyped roles.
Now Washington has won for his part as Alonzo Harris in the violent police thriller “Training Day,” playing a charismatic but corrupt narcotics detective who bullies his narcotics squad trainee (Ethan Hawke) while ruling the roost in an L.A. battle zone.
Berry beat the field for her steamy part in “Monster’s Ball” as Leticia Musgrove, a Southern mother double bereaved_by the execution of her husband and the car-accident death of her son.
Both movies are frank, verbally profane and violent. They show things unshowable in the time of “Gone With the Wind” or even 20 or 30 years later.
But mostly, they showed that African-Americans could be portrayed onscreen as complex human beings_part good, part bad_rather than the bigot-fodder of decades ago: the cardboard villains, comic butts or long-suffering saints and mammies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. That battle, at least onscreen, was settled long ago. But this year’s double Oscar seals the contract.
Berry gave a tearful, highly emotional acceptance speech, perhaps the longest since Greer Garson’s for “Mrs. Miniver.” Washington was smiley, upbeat in his brief speech.
Then there was the deeply moving tribute and honorary Oscar to Poitier. Poitier’s appearance was heightened by the drama of the Best Actor and Actress contest, but it quickly became something transcendent.
Beginning with Kasi Lemmons’ rousing group testimony from an all-star gallery of African-American talent (from Spike Lee to Washington and Berry), it crescendoed into a moving mass “thank-you.”
Then came Poitier’s acceptance speech_one of the most eloquent in recent Academy history.
It was a speech rich in exactly what many Oscar speeches lack: dignity, purpose, a sense of perspective and real gratitude.