Did Halle Berry's speech expose Oscar racism? At minimum, says Mark Harris, the criticism she's taking shows that pundits prefer their African-American actors to behave with restraint
Halle Berry, Oscars 2002
Credit: Halle Berry: Kevork Djansezian/AP/Wide World

Did Halle Berry’s speech expose Oscar racism?

On Sunday night, after 74 years, the Academy Awards finally caught up to the achievements of African-Americans. An honorary Oscar for Sidney Poitier, Best Actor to Denzel Washington, Best Actress to Halle Berry — what a night.

On Monday morning, the commentary rolled in. Boy, do we still have a long way to go. And by ”we,” I mean the very people — professional pundits, Oscar-watchers, spinners, critics, and armchair quarterbacks — who make up the peanut gallery that exhorted the Academy to right this wrong in the first place. Oscar may have changed — at least for one night — but some bad habits are hard to kill.

I’m talking in particular about the contrast being drawn between the emotionally coolheaded speeches of Poitier and Washington and the too-long, too-damp, over-too-many-tops Halle Berry Moment. Now, there’s certainly no disputing the facts. Was Poitier his usual stentorian, immaculately controlled self? He was. Was Berry a little big for the room (even if the room had been Yankee Stadium)? Sure.

But I rankle when I start seeing words like ”dignity” and ”restraint” applied approvingly to African-American performers by mostly white writers. It rubs up against the notion that there’s a right way and a wrong way for black people to behave in public. It says fettered is better. And in more than one case, it screams of a double standard.

Did you watch the Sidney Poitier filmed tribute — and I mean closely? If you did, you saw a record of disservice done to a great actor by an industry that was always more interested in him as an icon — of rectitude, of control, of, yes, ”dignity” and ”restraint” — than as a performer.

In Poitier’s glory years — roughly the late 1950s to the late 1960s — he won an Oscar and made a few good movies, as well as some (”Lilies of the Field,” ”To Sir With Love”) that look a bit cobwebbed these days. But was he ever allowed to cut loose, to screw up, to play the range of roles and make the variety of choices — even bad ones — that his white contemporaries were? Of course not: The movie industry was too busy protecting its investment in the one version of Poitier it knew it could sell. The contrast to the opportunities given to his contemporary and fellow honoree Robert Redford should make everyone cringe.

Poitier’s survival in the business is a miracle. His honorary Oscar is richly deserved. And the mutual salute exchanged by him and Denzel Washington — his natural heir, and a brilliantly talented actor who, 40 years after Poitier, has STILL had to fight to play the range of roles his talent demands — was the emotional highlight of the evening.

But I love Halle Berry. I don’t care if she couldn’t stop crying and took too much time and offered more thanks than you’ll find in the liner notes on a Whitney Houston album. It’s Halle Berry! OF COURSE she’s gonna pull out all the stops! Didn’t you see the movie? You want ”dignity” and ”restraint,” go give an Oscar to Angela Bassett. (And by the way, how about a good role or two for her?) A colleague who was in London during the Oscars tells me that Brits were particularly withering in their assessment of Berry’s speech. Don’t even bother to ask how many black people have won British Academy Awards, by the way. It’s a bit of a sore spot over there.

Last year, when Julia Roberts won and got so comfortable up on the podium I thought she was going to pull up a chair and sit down, people just said she was ”enjoying her moment.” In 1999, when Gwyneth Paltrow got all weepy over Grampa Buster, nobody suggested her coronation was tarnished. For all of the deserved cheering about a giant step being taken toward diversity, the griping about Berry — not just the griping, but the nose-wrinkling, ”doesn’t she know how to behave” distaste — suggests that uniformity is more what people have in mind.

Like I said: A long way to go.