In a few memorable moments Sunday evening, Hollywood crossed a historic boundary by giving its two top acting awards for the first time to a pair of black actors, Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball” and Denzel Washington for “Training Day.”
“This moment is so much bigger than me,” a teary-eyed Berry proclaimed at the top of her acceptance speech for “Monster’s Ball.”
Berry cited thesps Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox “and the nameless, faceless women of color that now have a chance because this door has been opened.”
Though both Berry and Washington were leading contenders, prognosticators were skeptical that both would win. Only six of the 26 previoulsy nominated African American actors had taken home Oscars since the awards were launched in 1928.
Berry, acknowledging her speech was running long as she issued extensive thank yous, said, “It’s been 74 years — I’ve got to take this time.”
Berry’s win was the first for an African American in the lead actress category, while Washington’s was only the second besides Sidney Poitier for “Lilies of the Field” in 1963.
“Two birds in one night,” quipped an elated Washington, who won a supporting actor Oscar for “Glory” in 1989.
He acknowledged the Honorary Oscar that Poitier had been awarded earlier in the evening, adding, “I’ll always be chasing you.”
Washington recalled that his original ambition to be an actor had been met with astonishment.
“When I was in college starting out as an actor, they asked each one of us what we wanted to do. I said I wanted to be the best actor in the world and all the students looked at me like I was a nut,” Washington said. “Life has taught me to just try and be the best that I can be.”
With Washington, Will Smith and Halle Berry as candidates this year, it marked the first time in 29 years that three African Americans were nominated for lead roles. It was also the first time ever that two blacks had nominated for best actor in the same year.
Otther black winners besides Poitier and Washington were Hattie McDaniel in “Gone With the Wind” in 1939; Louis Gossett Jr. as a sergeant in “An Officer and a Gentleman” in 1983, Whoopi Goldberg as a spiritualist in “Ghost” in 1991 and Cuba Gooding Jr. as a football player in “Jerry Maguire” in 1997.
Poitier accepted his honorary Oscar in memory of African American thesps who preceded him. He singled out Joseph Mankiewicz, the Mirisch Brothers, Stanley Kramer, Richard Brooks and noted he came to Hollywood 53 years ago at the age of 22.
“Back then, no route had been established for where I was hoping to go,” he added. “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 and in fact might have never been set in motion were there not an untold number of courageous unselfish choices made by a handful of visionary American filmmakers, directors, writers and producers.”