Token Credit: Philip Kerr on Denzel Washington's Plea to Be Recognised for His Acting and Not His Race. (Film)

By Kerr, Philip | New Statesman (1996), April 15, 2002 | Go to article overview

Token Credit: Philip Kerr on Denzel Washington's Plea to Be Recognised for His Acting and Not His Race. (Film)


Kerr, Philip, New Statesman (1996)


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."

"As with almost everything to do with race in America," wrote Muonz, "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. …

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