A Picture Is Worth 74 Years

Where were you when Halle Berry got her best actress Oscar? Like other life-defining phenomena -- the assassinations of presidents and pop stars, acts of terror and the births of our children -- thi

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Where were you when Halle Berry got her best actress Oscar? Like other life-defining phenomena — the assassinations of presidents and pop stars, acts of terror and the births of our children — this history deserves to rank in our memories for posterity.

I took it personally. I was sitting Indian style in the middle of my mussed bed holding my breath and envisioning Berry's victory but anticipating her loss.

When her name was called and the camera caught her transfixed and paralyzed, I exhaled and cried.

The next day I bought a copy of USA Today with Berry's picture above the fold. Once at work, I played India.Arie and with 'Video' — the black woman's I'm-not-too-pretty-but-I'm-not-ugly-either anthem of self-love — as my soundtrack, I taped above my desk that photograph of a tearful Berry clutching her trophy to her right side.

Her mouth is open and her teeth are bared in anguish, disbelief and relief. Her wail is frozen. Her left arm is extended.

Her hand is aloft, outstretched as in an unreciprocated handshake. She reaches out to me.

At 12:11 a.m. on March 25, 2002, when Russell Crowe announced Berry's name as best actress of the 74th Annual Academy Awards, Berry spoke to me. She spoke for me.

Egomania and skittish hormones aside, Berry's win has nothing and everything to do with me and more to do with Hollywood's brand of big-budget racism, history, sacrifice, all that other skewed socialization that fertilizes racism and mostly what Salon arts and entertainment writer Stephanie Zacharek calls 'cultural conditioning.' History depletes us, forcing us to deceive us.

Judging from the Academy's legacy of sprinkling flies in the buttermilk, we might buy into the lie that blacks haven't been worthy of Oscar-caliber roles. Furthermore, even when we landed them, we weren't rewarded with gold statues.

Long-forgotten Lonette McKee should've been at least nominated for Sparkle, 'Round Midnight or Jungle Fever. Oprah Winfrey deserved a win for The Color Purple, as did Diana Ross for Lady Sings the Blues.

Ruby Dee deserves at least a look every time she's on screen. Cicely Tyson has nearly done herself a disservice with her patented emoting, traits for which Meryl Streep, Sissy Spacek and Jessica Lange have all been lauded. Sounder still breaks my heart.

And what about Angela Bassett as an otherworldly Tina Turner in What's Love Got To Do With It?

The Academy is fickle and manipulative. It plays into Hollywood's stultified thinking, and it doesn't give us credit for suspending reality for two hours. It doesn't know we can accept a black woman playing an 'un-black' character.

Instead, Hollywood likes its Negresses as bitches, 'hos, maids, crack heads, mammies, comic foils, inane sidekicks, martyrs and monosyllabic judges. So blacks — as moviegoers and moviemakers — are relegated to roles of co-dependency.

We wait. And our rewards for waiting have been scarce.

In 1939, when Oscar was just 11 years old, Hattie McDaniel won best supporting actress for her role as Mammie of the World in Gone With the Wind. Twenty-seven years later, Sidney Poitier, who this year received an honorary Oscar, won best actor in 1963 for Lilies of the Field. Whoopi Goldberg, everybody's favorite asexual, guilting Negress, won best supporting actress in 1991 for Ghost.

Denzel Washington won best supporting actor for Glory in 1989 and made history this year when, with his best actor win for Training Day, he and Berry became the first blacks to snag best acting nods in the same year. He's also the first back man since Poitier to win best actor, for a film that's not his best or worst work. He should've won for Malcolm X, but that would've meant rewarding black dissonance, and that's a no-no.

Part of the reason there's a paucity of reasonable roles for black actors is there's an anemic cast of Negroes in positions of power in Hollywood. And when the pool is that shallow, it's easier to spot, mimic and deconstruct mediocrity.

Think of the lop-sided ratio of questionable and vapid black flicks to every good well acted and directed one. That we can name names is my point. That there are about equal numbers of good and bad white movies is also my point.

So when Halle Berry cries, clutching all that history and squeezing the breath from naysayers at her side, I cry. And I cry because I'm filled with the recognition of validation.

I know what it's like to be walking head first and nearly parallel to the ground into icy, bone-slicing winds. Turning finally to fully face the glory of the sun is enough to make anyone cry. And a picture says it all.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

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