Film - Philip Kerr on Denzel Washington's plea to be recognised for his acting and not his race
I have no objection to Sidney Poitier receiving a lifetime achievement award at last month's Oscars ceremony, but the truth of the matter is that he has not made a good film since In the Heat of the Night, in 1967. And it seems unfortunate that the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should have chosen to honour Poitier - he won Best Actor in 1963, for the schmaltzy Lilies of the Field - in a way that leaves it open to charges of tokenism.
I haven't yet seen Monster's Ball, the film for which the near-hysterical Halle Berry won the Best Actress award, but I have seen Training Day, and there is no doubt that Denzel Washington's Oscar-winning performance is head and shoulders above the other nominees, and made his nearest rival, Russell Crowe, look hopelessly second-rate.
Washington plays Alonzo Harris, an LAPD detective and veteran narcotics officer whose method of enforcing the law is as objectionable as his overall ethos is corrupt. The film follows Harris as he "trains" a rookie, Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), over a period of 24 hours. Ethical dilemmas arise for Hoyt as to whether Harris's methodology for ridding the streets of South Central Los Angeles of drugs is right or wrong. Harris always has a smooth, persuasive answer for the younger man, until Hoyt reaches a line that he will not cross, and the main issue becomes not a question of police ethics, but the more basic question of Hoyt's own survival.
Washington is never less than riveting. And although it is understandable that Ron Howard, the director of A Beautiful Mind, should have felt proud of his own film and partisan about Crowe's chances of winning an Oscar, it was surely unfortunate that, as early as the week before the ceremony, he managed inadvertently to raise the suspicion of tokenism with regard to Washington's bravura performance.
Howard told La Opinion, the leading Spanish-language newspaper in Los Angeles: "The only thing that would prevent [Russell Crowe] from winning is that the academy, out of guilt [my italics], [might] try to repair the damage that it did to Denzel Washington by not having given him the Oscar for his performance in The Hurricane."
Actually, I don't think that Howard really meant to suggest that if Washington won, it would have something to do with Hollywood's guilt about race; but his words featured prominently in an article in the LA Times, by Lorenza Munoz, which seemed to suggest just that.
"As with almost everything to do with race in America," wrote Munoz, "the Berry and Washington wins have become the subject of contention. Behind the scenes, some academy members wondered whether too much was made about the race issue. Some even wondered if the academy's 'guilt' in overlooking minorities for so long would play a deciding role in granting the Oscar to Washington."
Even if this was not what Howard was talking about, the producers of the awards ceremony ought to have been a little more sensitive to how things looked to the rest of us mere mortals. How things look is their business, after all. For example, why did all those paying tribute to Sidney Poitier, in the cloying piece of film hagiography that preceded his award, have to be African-American actors and directors? Surely things would have looked - for want of a better expression - more integrated had a few white performers also given authentic testimony to this quietly dignified man. Instead, the academy herded all those making testimonials to Poitier into a neat little ghetto, comprising Spike Lee, Ving Rhames, Samuel L Jackson, Cuba Gooding Jr, Wesley Snipes, Delroy Lindo et al.
Nor were things helped on this score by the choice of Whoopi Goldberg as mistress of ceremonies. In a thinly disguised attempt to grin and bare it, she joked: "So much mud has been thrown this year that all the nominees look black." Even Washington found room for a remark that betrayed his own exasperation with the academy: "For 40 years I've been chasing Sidney, and what do they do? Give him an Oscar on the same night they give me one."
Nothing should detract from the excellence of Washington's performance. But it rather looks as if the academy really did think it could make up for 74 years of anti-black bias at the Oscars in one crass night. Where were the Oscars for Paul Robeson (Show Boat), Hattie McDaniel (Gone With the Wind), Dooley Wilson (Casablanca) and Ethel Waters (Cabin in the Sky)?
After his win, Washington himself made a reference to race being irrelevant and pleaded with the media to recognise him and Berry as actors, and not African-American actors. Would that the academy had done the same.
Training Day (18) is on general release