Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Now that Halle Berry and Denzel Washington have won Academy Awards, the heat is off. The charges that the Academy is rife with racism have quieted down.
Or have they? No one in Hollywood really knows what to make of the historic moment. Did the two African-American actors win because they are black or despite being Black?
And does it dilute or enhance their achievement to refer to Berry and Washington as African-American Oscar winners?
Since no one takes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seriously, why would anyone expect the Oscars to be an appropriate venue for an analysis of racism in Hollywood?
I'm glad Berry and Washington won. But I wouldn't have cared if they hadn't.
I didn't see either of their movies but Berry and Washington are bright, articulate and attractive actors who practice their craft as well as anyone.
But whether Berry and Washington won or lost does not necessarily imply racism, a word tossed around so causally that it has lost impact.
Movie making is a B-U-S-I-N-E-S-S. All of the decisions made in Hollywood are determined by whether or not more movie tickets will be sold.
Nobody understands this better than Washington, a black man succeeding and flourishing in a predominantly white man's world.
In a 1998 interview, Washington reflected on racism in Hollywood: "Well, is there racism in Hollywood? Is there racism in the world? There always has been and there always will be. There are all kinds of ways to win the battle."
Washington feels that his job is to entertain and not to speculate on how he is perceived or to make judgments about the racial motivations of the individuals he works with.
Later in the interview, Washington said, "Hollywood is saying, 'Now we'll make some movies with black folks.' They aren't doing it for altruistic reasons; they're doing it because it is business, good business."
As a prime example of what motivates Hollywood, look at Oprah Winfrey's sad experience when she converted the best-selling Toni Morrison novel "Beloved" into a movie. Hollywood wouldn't bankroll the project. Although there were hints that racism was behind the decision, industry sources knew that there was no audience for a tedious Civil War epic about love and loss.
So Winfrey poured millions of dollars and years of her life to bring "Beloved" to the screen. But despite the star appeal of Winfrey, Morrison and Danny Glover, the movie flopped after the opening week. The moguls, as it turned out, were right.
Washington has benefited from Hollywood's business decisions. He has had a string of good scripts to work with and has made the most of them: "Glory", "Philadelphia", and "Courage Under Fire". All those projects moved Washington up the salary scale and into the Oscar limelight. Washington won a Best Supporting Actor award for his role in "Glory" in 1989.
While Washington has a solid grip on the realities of Hollywood, his perceptions of racism in the real world may be blurry.
In a "60 Minutes" piece titled "Denzel: A Look into Denzel Washington's Roots" dated July 2, 2000 (and schedule to re-air Sunday, March 31st) Washington said: "You get on an elevator and a woman gets on and she sees you and she backs up. I'm like, 'I could take out my wallet and crush you with it.' There's still that, 'Oh, black face. He's going to put me in a pot and eat me.'"
No matter how I read Washington's comment, I'm troubled. Is racism in America still so rampant that a famous black movie star causes women to recoil in elevators? Or does Washington see racism at every turn even where it may not exist? And does his money make him—in his eyes—a better person than the other elevator riders?
Washington is enjoying a blessed life. His mother, a small business owner, and his father, a Pentecostal preacher, were a positive influence. Washington graduated from Fordham University with a degree in journalism. From there, he's made a steady climb to stardom and riches.
Being black hasn't held Washington back.
An intelligent dialogue about racism in America is an on-going necessity. But we need the correct forum. And Tinseltown isn't the place.
Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.