Then there is the other side. One younger black woman told me how much rage she encountered among black Hollywood types when "Monster's Ball" came up in conversation. Berry was accused of selling out for taking the role and for her willingness to be filmed in such a passionate erotic scene with a white man. This is not surprising since black women from coast to coast went nuts and sometimes began screaming at the screen when "their" Denzel was shown on screen with a white woman in "He Got Game," another of the films, along with the almost monumentally fresh "Devil in a Blue Dress," for which he should have been nominated.
So we find ourselves as Americans once more in a great big black-and-white mess. Allowed to pick up a tradition shared by those few black women who have ever been able to play a human being in a Hollywood film, Berry might lose out because of racism or the fear of offending somebody. Or she could lose out because voters don't want to feel pushed into selecting her even if they know she went far past anything that Sissy Spacek did in the exceedingly absurd "In the Bedroom," which sinks from a film about grief and injustice into a ridiculous revenge fantasy.
What that film expects us to believe is much further out than the romance between Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, a reinterpretation of the beauty and the beast tale, which also says things beyond what we tend to expect in a film that uses racial antipathy as a central metaphor.
"Monster's Ball" says that if we come from bigoted backgrounds, we have to cut ourselves loose from those bigots, even if they are family. It says that trauma may help us break free of our emptiness. It says that if we are ever to go beyond our terrible past, we may have to learn to forgive others who have changed just as we have to face our own pain if we are to liberate ourselves from the enslaving weight it can impose upon us. We rarely get such mature and truly human visions from contemporary American film.
As the buzz goes, Washington's major competition is supposed to be Russell Crowe, who, however fine an actor, has yet to command the American nuances that fellow Australians Anthony LaPaglia, Nicole Kidman and Judy Davis have clearly mastered to a fare-thee-well. Of course, if nuance was ever the issue, no one could have walked past Laurence Fishburne in "What's Love Got to Do With It?" or Angela Bassett in the same film or Washington in "X" and "Devil in a Blue Dress," where he did so many things we had never seen before. It is Washington's grasp of nuance at his best that separates him from the pack, his ability to transform his eyes, his lips, his brow and the rest of his face into such an imposing instrument that makes him one of our very best actors. But nuance unrecognized is of no assistance in a profession not always sure of what it should be about.
When we get to black actors, we have another set of problems. Versions of black Americans that we are familiar with on screen have been so often either in the buffoon category or the overacted category that they seem to eliminate all possibilities for subtlety. Those who would make serious American films need, with great haste, to dispense with that endless mountain of corny images that all ethnic groups have had to suffer under. Cartoon stereotypes, whether of the victim or the pious, fail to provide the human depth a film truly needs.
Stanley Crouch is an editorial columnist for the New York Daily News, an essayist, a playwright, a novelist and a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center.