"It has been a long journey to this moment," said Sidney Poitier in 1964 when he became the first African-American actor to win an Academy Award for a lead performance and only the second to take home an Oscar.
Poitier had waited 24 years since Hattie McDaniel broke the color barrier with a best supporting actress prize for Gone with the Wind. That milestone was hailed as the dawning of a new age of opportunity and respect for black actors that still hadn't materialized when Poitier came along.
Clutching his 1964 Oscar for Lilies of the Field, at a time of great hope in the civil rights movement, Poitier couldn't have guessed that the next journey for black actors would be even longer.
Thirty-eight years passed before Halle Berry's best actress Oscar _ the first in a lead role for an African-American woman _ complemented Poitier's accomplishment at the 74th annual Academy Awards show. Moments later, Denzel Washington's best actor victory set a new standard for Oscar diversity. Basking in their historic glow was Poitier, himself the recipient of an honorary Oscar at Sunday's event.
Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences woke up Monday morning (or afternoon, depending on how late they partied) and knew they had done something momentous, something for the history books.
Sure, much had been said about the academy's opportunity to make history. But these weren't affirmative-action Oscars doled out to stifle complaints.
Anyone who sees Berry's wrenching portrayal of death-row widow Leticia Musgrove in Monster's Ball knows they're witnessing greatness. Washington lifted the crooked-cop cliches of Training Day on his talented shoulders as surely as his closest competitor, Russell Crowe, carried the richer material of A Beautiful Mind.
Washington was named best actor probably for three reasons: He was excellent in Training Day, Crowe isn't as popular in some Hollywood circles, and the academy owed Washington, not as a black man but as an actor who turned in Oscar-caliber performances in Malcolm X and The Hurricane.
In other words, he won for the same kinds of reasons some white actors, including John Wayne, Paul Newman and Al Pacino, won overdue Oscars for roles that weren't their very best.
The key question is: How will Berry and Washington's groundbreaking evening be remembered 24 or 38 years from now? With pleasant nostalgia? Or frustration that the feat was never repeated?
McDaniel cracked open a door that quickly shut. Same for Poitier and later supporting acting winners Cuba Gooding Jr., Louis Gossett Jr. and Whoopi Goldberg.
If those wins had truly cleared the way for actors of color, Berry's win would not have garnered the gasps and joyful tears _ from the winner and the audience _ we saw on TV on Sunday night.
This can either be the beginning of Oscar's genuine color blindness or another blip academy members will point to as evidence that they've recognized black artists when anyone complains otherwise.
Six years ago, the academy nominated one African-American, a short subject producer, and Rev. Jesse Jackson led protests. Academy officials reflexively pointed to Poitier, then grudgingly acknowledged that too much time had passed since that landmark. Membership drives reaching out to artists of color brought new blood to the academy.
Sunday night's events may be the first indication the academy's vision has widened. Maybe in the future, African-American actors can win an Oscar without it seeming so momentous.
When we no longer emphasize an actor's race, we'll also see changes in production decisions _ hiring without regard for race unless it's vital to the story, for example.
"I don't think one night takes away something as monstrous as racism," Berry told Good Morning America.
"But one night like this does inspire hope and does maybe make people think about the choices they make: producers, directors, studios. Maybe it makes them think a little bit differently. And if they're thinking differently and people like me are approaching them with inspired hearts and they have that hope that tonight will bring, then you never know what can happen."
(Final edited version not provided for electronic library)
List of 74th annual Academy Awards presented Sunday:
BEST PICTURE: A Beautiful Mind.
BEST DIRECTOR: Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind.
BEST ACTOR: Denzel Washington, Training Day.
BEST ACTRESS: Halle Berry, Monster's Ball.
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Jim Broadbent, Iris.
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind.
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Akiva Goldsman, A Beautiful Mind.
ANIMATED FEATURE: Shrek.
ANIMATED SHORT: For the Birds.
ART DIRECTION: Moulin Rouge.
CINEMATOGRAPHY: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
COSTUMES: Moulin Rouge.
DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Murder on a Sunday Morning.
DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT: Thoth.
FILM EDITING: Black Hawk Down.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: No Man's Land, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
LIVE ACTION SHORT: The Accountant.
MAKEUP: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
ORIGINAL SCORE: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Julian Fellowes, Gosford Park.
ORIGINAL SONG: If I Didn't Have You, by Randy Newman, from Monsters, Inc.
SOUND: Black Hawk Down.
SOUND EDITING: Pearl Harbor.
VISUAL EFFECTS: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.