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Poignant Oscar night firsts highlight industry’s failings

I know I’m a softie, but on Sunday night, I started to cry when Halle Berry accepted her best actress award. Between sobs, she gasped, “This moment is so much bigger than me.”

It was the first time a black woman-in fact, any woman of color-had won an academy award for best actress. That same night, Denzel Washington thanked God and Sidney Poitier for his best actor Oscar, and the Poitier himself was honored for a lifetime of cinematic achievement, during which he never once succumbed to the “token black dude” stylings of Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence.

Like the rest of Hollywood, I couldn’t be more excited for Berry, Washington, Poitier, and the significance of Sunday night’s show (hey, hey kids! The Academy’s not racist after all!) although I’m pretty sure Washington’s award was actually for “Malcom X” and “The Hurricane,” not “Training Day.”

The strange thing was, after Berry stopped crying and Washington pried a giddy Julia Roberts off of him, everyone kept telling everyone else that times had changed, and things are different now.

Apparently, now that Berry and Washington have been properly lauded, black actors will come appearing out of the woodwork, snatching up Oscars right and left. In fact, in ten years the Academy will be comprised of all African Americans, and no one will ever nominate Judi Dench again.

The fact of the matter is, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Just as we can count on Dame Dench at the Oscars as long as she holds up, it’s going to take a lot more than a few token statues tossed at the most humble and least in-your-face of the black actors to make a truly colorblind Hollywood.

Scripts are still written by white men. Directors are by and large white men. Producers-you guessed it. Besides Berry and Co., how many black faces were up there on Sunday accepting technical and behind the scenes awards?

In order for a black man to get cast, a script has to specify a “black man.” If the film in question calls for a man to play a generic doctor, a lawyer, or a businessman, the actor cast will be white (and probably Tom Hanks) unless the film is in some way about racial tension, necessitating race-specific casting.

There are no meaty roles like Berry’s in “Monster’s Ball” even written for black women. White women have to struggle to weed through the sex symbol roles to find something worth acting for, and there’s just nothing written for black women at all. How can black actors succeed, then, if there is such a small place for them?

They can’t. Until directors truly cast their films without reference to race, or until screenwriters write more good roles for black actors, we will not see the change everyone seems so sure is on its way.

Good luck to Berry and Washington, and here’s to Will Smith’s valiant plea to be taken seriously. But your talent alone will not change an essentially racist industry.