April 9th, 2002


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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

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.Collapse )