The date was March 24th 2002 and the 74th Academy Awards ceremony was being held in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. I remembered just how excited I was because some of my favorite actors/actresses, Denzel Washington (Training Day), Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind), Sean Penn (I Am Sam), Will Smith (Ali), Tom Wilkinson (In The Bedroom), Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball), Dame Judi Dench (Iris), Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge), Sissy Spacek (In The Bedroom) and Renée Zellweger (Bridget Jones Diary) were vying for the night’s top acting award. Whoopi Goldberg (in her fourth outing) hosted the Awards and two of my all time crushes Sidney Poitier and Robert Redford were being honored with Lifetime Achievement Academy Awards.
This wasn’t your average Academy Awards; this was to be a history-making and game-changing Academy Awards, so there was a great deal of hoopla going into the awards that March night. Not since Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield’s groundbreaking nomination for the movie Sounder in 1972 had a black male and female vied for acting’s top prizes in the same year.
The show started with the typical fanfare that some love and others loathe. Whoopi did her best to make the hours go by smoothly for us the home viewers. About midway through the show Sidney Poitier was first to be honored for his diverse body of work as an actor, director, producer, civil rights champion among other notable distinctions – ‘No Way Out’ ‘Edge Of The City’ ‘The Defiant Ones’ ‘A Raisin In The Sun’ Paris Blues’ ‘Lilies Of The Field’ ‘To Sir With Love’ ‘In The Heat Of The Night’ ‘Buck And The Preacher’ and ‘Sneakers’ are just a few of the movies he’s made during his amazing career. It was a well-deserved honor, but my jaw dropped when I realized ALL the people offering testimonials to Sidney Poitier were black!
Moments later Robert Redford was presented with his lifetime achievement award for his diverse body of work as an actor, director, producer, and champion of environmental causes among other notable distinctions – some of his movies – ‘Barefoot In The Park’ ‘Inside Daisy Clover’ ‘Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid’ ‘The Candidate’ ‘The Great Gatsby’ ‘Three Days Of The Candor’ ‘All The President’s Men’ ‘The Sting’ ‘The Natural’ and ‘Sneakers’ are just a few in his amazing career. For the second time that evening, my jaw dropped as I realized ALL the people the Academy chose to offer testimonials to Robert Redford were white!
I sat staring at the screen speechless wondering what had I just witnessed. Sydney Poitier and Robert Redford at one point the biggest box office stars in the world relegated to “black and white only honors”. Moments later Whoopi took to the stage and commented on the all black all white homage. She made a few good quips out of it and all was seemingly forgotten because both Halle Berry and Denzel Washington made history that night by winning the Academy Awards in their competitive fields.
Back then I wondered about the gender and racial make up of the Academy and I thought much as I do today, that if more people of color and more women were a part of the process then the “color” based 2002 testimonials and the 2016 all white nominations would simply not occur.