Making History

March 25, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

SPOKESPERSON: And the Oscar goes to… Halle Berry in "Monster’s Ball."

GWEN IFILL: Last night’s Oscar awards presentation was one for the history books.

SPOKESPERSON: This is the first Oscar for Halle Berry.

GWEN IFILL: Halle Berry became the first black woman in 74 years of Academy Award-giving to win for lead actress, this for her against-the-grain star turn as the widow of an executed convict in the film "Monster’s Ball." Berry, crying and gasping for air, delivered an emotional thank you to the black actresses who came before her.

HALLE BERRY: This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me: Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.

SPOKESPERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, Sidney Poitier.

GWEN IFILL: The four-plus hours of Oscar night turned into something of a showcase for black actors. Sidney Poitier, who took home a 1964 Best Actor statuette for "Lilies of the Field," received a lifetime achievement honor.

SIDNEY POITIER: I arrived in Hollywood at the age of 22 in a time different than today’s, a time in which the odds of my standing here tonight would not have fallen in my favor. Back then, no route had been established for where I was hoping to go, no pathway left in evidence for me to trace, no custom for me to follow. Yet here I am this evening at the end of a journey that in 1949 would have been considered almost impossible.

GWEN IFILL: Until last night, Poitier had been the only black winner in the best actor category.

SPOKESPERSON: The Oscar goes to Denzel Washington …

GWEN IFILL: But Denzel Washington, winning for his role as a corrupt cop in "Training Day," changed all that.

DENZEL WASHINGTON: 40 years I’ve been chasing Sidney. They finally give it to me, and what do they do? They give it to him the same night. I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir, nothing I would rather do.

GWEN IFILL: Other black actors have ascended the Oscar podium over the years, but always for supporting roles: Hattie McDaniel for "Gone With the Wind" in 1940; Louis Gossett, Jr. For "An Officer and a Gentleman" in 1983; Washington for "Glory" in 1990; Whoopi Goldberg for "Ghost" in 1991; and Cuba Gooding, Jr. For "Jerry Maguire" in 1997. There were other firsts last night as well. Songwriter Randy Newman snagged an Oscar on his 16th try. Newman took home the award for best song "If I Didn’t Have You," from "Monsters, Inc." And in a new category, the animated fairy tale "Shrek," featuring the voices of Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy, won Best Animated feature.

And Oscar had a new home, back in Hollywood for the first time in 40 years, at the ornate new Kodak Theatre.

GWEN IFILL: For more on the history made at last night’s awards, we’re joined by Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinema and Television; and A.O. Scott, a film critic for The New York Times.

GWEN IFILL: Tony Scott, we’ve been watching the Oscars, staying up late for years and years and years and yet it turns out that last night was when all the stars were aligned for all these African-American actors. Why now?

A.O. SCOTT: It’s a good question. It was an extraordinary night. It was one of the few Oscar broadcasts I can remember that had really genuinely moving and surprising moments in it. I think there’s been a feeling for some time that this moment was overdue. I mean take nothing away from the historic nature of last night, but 38 years is an awfully long time between Best Actor awards and 74 years is just an eternity for Best Actress. So over the last decade though I think there’s been a real flowering of African-American acting talent. And there’s been a sense that some of these actors who have been around for a long time and some of them who have come up more recently like Halle Berry are really due for this kind of recognition. Certainly Denzel Washington who was nominated for Best Actor and passed over for "Malcolm X" and for "The Hurricane," which are perhaps arguably stronger films was very much at the point in his career where he was due for this kind of recognition. Halle Berry’s performance in "Monster’s Ball" was an extraordinarily brave and risky kind of performance of a kind that the Academy perhaps too seldom recognizes but does on occasion give attention to.

GWEN IFILL: Let me bounce your theory against Professor Boyd – the idea that all this African American talent is flowering now and that’s why it’s getting its recognition. Is that why now?

TODD BOYD: Well, I think it’s been flowering for quite some time. I think, you know, when you talk about Hattie MacDaniel winning an Academy Award in 1940, clearly African Americans have been in this game for a long time. Who would have ever thought that we would have a Colin Powell and a Condoleezza Rice visible, prominent African Americans leaders in a Republican Presidential Administration before you would have a second African American win in the Best Actor category and before you would have the first African American woman, you know, win an Academy Award as a Best Actress? So I don’t know if it’s flowering now. I think times have changed, but it’s 2002. I would suggest that many of these African American firsts that people were celebrating took place back in the ’60s or the ’70s. Hollywood is a little late in this regard, in catching up. It is long overdue.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s follow up on that because last night during her acceptance speech, Halle Berry talked about accepting her award for Dorothy Dandridge and Diahann Carroll and other black actresses. Were they just before their time?

TODD BOYD: Well, I don’t think they were before their time. They were part of a Hollywood industry that is very racist. I don’t think there’s a secret to this. You know, the sort of cornerstone film in Hollywood is D.W. Griffiths’s "Birth of a Nation – 1915."

If you’ve ever seen "Birth of a Nation," you will know that at the end of the film the Ku Klux Klan rides to restore order to the particular community represented in the film. This is the film upon which Hollywood was built. And if racism is on the front end in that way, it’s going to inform everything that comes afterwards. When you’re talking about the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, even ’60s and ’70s in Hollywood, you’re talking about an American society that is very racist and very different than it is now. In some ways, you’re talking about, for instance, films being sent to the South and if there were African Americans in some of these films the scenes were often edited out to appease southern taste. You’re talking about Stepin Fetchit, Willie Best, Mantan Morlan, some of these old stereotypical comedic images that Hollywood perpetrated of African American for many, many years, maids and "handkerchief heads."

So Hollywood has not been at the forefront of being progressive in this regard. I think to talk about a Diahann Carroll or a Lena Horne or a Dorothy Dandridge, you’re talking about figures who were part of Hollywood at a time when America itself was very overtly racist, and the industry I think followed suit also.

GWEN IFILL: So Tony Scott, assuming that America is not overtly racist or that’s what maybe last night means, does last night mean we’ve turned the corner on this? Is the ceiling broken through, the wall down as Halle Berry said?

A.O. SCOTT: Well, I certainly hope so. I mean, I’m not sure… I think there is some ground for optimism. And obviously there’s been a great deal of progress, but Hollywood, as Professor Boyd suggests, has moved very slowly and in some ways has been behind in recent decades, I think lagging behind not just the rest of the country, but the rest of the popular culture. And I think that there is a danger of the movie industry, after last night, sort of congratulating itself and resting on its laurels and, you know, letting another 30 or 40 years go by before they have to do this again. And I hope that doesn’t happen. I mean, I hope that for one thing, to see these kinds of roles getting rewarded will move the industry in a direction of creating more such roles. Part of the problem is not just nominations and awards, but the kind of parts that are available to African American actors, which has certainly improved since the ’30s and ’40s.

GWEN IFILL: That’s an interesting point. Excuse me for interrupting you. Last night the two big winners came in "Monster’s Ball" and "Training Days," both very tough, very grim themes in both of those movies, and these actors broke through. Is there any significance that these themes were so grim?

A.O. SCOTT: I’m not sure there’s a general significance with the two. I think part of what was exciting about Denzel Washington’s performance in "training day" was that it seemed to go so much against type. It was such a vivid and smart and actually very, in its way, funny and scary sort of villainous performance. But I think that in the case of Halle Berry’s performance, the realism that she brought to the part, whether or not you think the movie itself was all that realistic is another argument maybe. But the kind of naturalism that she brought to that part is something that represents an opportunity that is fairly rare for African American actors who I think still, Hollywood feels more comfortable having them in comic parts other in… or in sort of criminal or villainous parts or in sort of noble, upstanding, righteous roles. So a real sort of flesh-and- blood human being is still a very hard role for an African American to find in Hollywood today.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Boyd, did last night’s Oscar ceremonies represent a shift in Oscar culture not only in the question of race and the breakthroughs there, but also in the question of the Best Actor… I mean the Best Picture winner, "a beautiful mind"?

TODD BOYD: Well, I think time will tell whether or not there’s really an overall change in the culture. There was a lot of controversy about "Beautiful Mind" leading up to last night. You know, Denzel and Halle’s story seems to have maybe drawn more publicity. Normally we pay more attention to the best picture. But this is a story of a different nature. I don’t know if we’ve seen a shift. I hope so. But again if this is not, you know, followed up next year or the following year, five years from now, if it takes another 30 years before two African Americans receive these awards, then this is simply tokenism and no progress has been made. So we can’t really over judge this moment. We have to take it for what it is.

I think in terms of other issues relative to Hollywood, a film like "Moulin Rouge" which is a bit edgy for Hollywood, maybe a bit too radical or a bit too hip to be awarded, was not completely shunned, but didn’t get the same sort of accolades as, say, "A Beautiful Mind." When that starts to happen, when movies like "Moulin Rouge" get the accolades that "A Beautiful Mind" would get, maybe then we can talk about overall shift in the culture, but it might be a bit too early right now.

GWEN IFILL: Tony Scott, what is it about the movies that brings us together like this, all staying up until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning to watch the Oscars? What is it about the movies?

A.O. SCOTT: Well, I think the movies, the Oscars are one of these curious events that no matter how much fun we make of them the next day and mocking the clothes that people are wearing and the length of the broadcast and whatever the Cirque du Soliel thought it was doing out there on that stage, we’re never entirely cynical about the movies.

No matter how much we know or assume about the… maybe the negative effects that some of what Hollywood does has on the culture people still love movies, and the movies are a very various and wonderful and surprising form of mass entertainment that have a lot to offer everyone. I think just going back to Professor Boyd’s point, I think….

GWEN IFILL: Briefly, please.

A.O. SCOTT: Yes, sorry. That that’s right. "Beautiful Mind" does represent a kind of status quo choice. I mean it’s a very accessible middle brow melodrama. And it represents the fact that the Academy doesn’t represent the public at large. The academy is older and certainly a lot whiter than the country at large.

GWEN IFILL: Tony Scott and Todd Boyd, thank you both very much for joining us.

A.O. SCOTT: Thank you.

TODD BOYD: Thank you.