Oscar Night

Sunday night, as is our annual tradition, Juliette and I watched the Academy Awards. There were a number of moments that caught my attention for being nice or interesting, heartwarming or funny or cringe-worthy. Sandra Bullock’s acceptance speech, for example, which was simultaneously heartfelt and funny. Or Gabourey Sidibe’s tears after being introduced by Oprah. Or Jeff Bridges finally winning. The one that I’ve been thinking about the most over the past couple of days, though, was Kathryn Bigelow’s win of Best Director. It turns out that Bigelow was the first woman to win that award, something that was pointed out a lot leading up to the ceremony, and even several times during it. What I can't stop wondering, though, is just how important her win is.

Before I go any further I should say that I'm sure that it was well-deserved. Although I haven't seen The Hurt Locker, I have only heard excellent things about it. Literally every person I've heard speak about it, whether a friend or a reviewer, has said it was a great movie. And I also thought that Bigelow's acceptance speech was nice. True, she may have made some small political statement, but she presented herself with respect and humility, and what seemed to be genuine gratitude.

It was actually the speech itself that really got me to thinking, because I couldn't help comparing it to Halle Berry's acceptance speech when she won for Monster's Ball. That speech really rubbed me the wrong way, and it's stayed in my mind over the years. The part I always come back to is this:

This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.

Now, to be sure, it is important that a woman of color finally won Best Actress, just as it's important that a woman won Best Director. But I just can't help but feel that neither is quite the same as, for example, Hattie McDaniel's Best Supporting Actress win in 1939. I don't even really think it's the same as Dorothy Dandridge's nomination for Best Actress in 1954.

Don't mistake me as saying that Berry's and Bigelow's wins don't matter, and especially don't mistake me as saying that we're past racism and sexism these days. Race and gender inequalities are real and serious problems. They are problems that, while we certainly have made gains on them over the past 50 years, we are not through with. I doubt we'll be through with them in my lifetime. Sometimes I doubt we ever will be. So, yes, it is important that a black woman can be Best Actress and that a woman can be Best Director. It's something that we should be proud of, that we live and participate in a society where things like that can happen.

Why, then, am I so set on Berry being different from McDaniel or Dandridge? The main thing is that I'm not sure that Berry's win really did open any doors. How much more of a chance does an unknown young woman of color have at becoming a Hollywood star now than she did before 2002? And now that Bigelow has won Best Director, does that really mean that women will have an easier time becoming movie directors?

Even before Halle Berry won her Oscar, I don't think it can really be said that minorities are underrepresented in acting. Just off the top of my head I can think of a number of well-respected black actors and actresses: Angela Bassett, Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Sidney Poitier, to name a few. And while it does seem that more directors are men than women, I don't know that I think that's due to some sort of institutional bias against women as directors. In fact, one of the earliest directors of a narrative film was a woman (Alice Guy-Blaché), and women have been making hugely successful films since at least the 80's (Big, directed by Penny Marshall, made over $100 million in 1988).

I can't help feeling that what I'm saying is going to bother people, but I really don't mean to denigrate Halle Berry or Kathryn Bigelow or their accomplishments. (And, to be fair, Bigelow doesn't seem to be trying to make her award into something more than that.) And I know that there's a natural tendency to make a big deal out of firsts. I just can't help feeling that Kathryn Bigelow's and Halle Berry's awards don't mean much more than that they did a good job in their work.

What do you think?