After a year of national tragedy, mourning, and spiritual revival, you would think a glitzy, glamorous, self-congratulatory affair like the Oscars would ring hollow and seem inappropriate. Instead, this year's Academy Awards ceremony offered compelling speeches, moments of genuinely moving drama, and surprising displays of humility and sincerity. Humility? At the Oscars?

"This moment is so much bigger than me," said Halle Berry as she received her Best Actress Oscar on Sunday night. It was hard not to be moved as Berry—the first African American actress ever to win the award—wept with joy. She won for an emotional and powerful performance in Monster's Ball, playing a grief-stricken woman coping with the execution of her Death Row husband, struggling to raise a troubled son, working hard to pay the bills, and enduring the racism of the South. While her performance in the film was certainly Oscar-worthy, her performance on the Oscar stage will stand as a more memorable and meaningful moment in the history of entertainment. In an industry so fraught with dirty politics, it was wonderful to see something go so right.

As Berry fought to regain her composure, she named a few of the many wonderful African American actresses who have gone before her and were never properly acknowledged for their excellent work—from Dorothy Dandridge and Diahann Carroll to actresses working today like Angela Bassett and Jada Pinkett Smith—actresses whom Berry said were standing beside her in that moment.

Meawhile, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, criticized for so many years for neglecting to honor black actors, cast off the burden of its mistakes and demonstrated that, yes, the times have changed. Not only did it choose to honor Berry, but they gave Best Actor to a black actor—Denzel Washington, his second Oscar, but first for a leading role. They also handed a career achievement award to another black actor—Sidney Poitier. And the whole affair was hosted by African American comedian Whoopi Goldberg. These honors are evidence of a gradual revolution in the U.S. entertainment industry. As race becomes less a factor and new role models emerge, a new generation of young actors may be inspired by just how much is now clearly possible.

Anyone who still denies the power of big-screen heroes to inspire young viewers, must not be paying attention. That influence was plainly evident in the acceptance speech of Denzel Washington. As he accepted his Best Actor award for his role in Training Day, only the second black man to win the award, he gestured to actor Sidney Poitier and said, "I've always been chasing you, Sidney."

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Poitier himself spoke of being inspired by industry role models. Until now, he was the only African American actor who had won an Oscar for a leading role (Lilies of the Field in 1963). But at this ceremony, he offered a powerful speech motivated by gratitude for "visionary American filmmakers." He also thanked those who preceded him in the fight to win equality and respect for blacks in America. "I accept this award in memory of all the African American actors and actresses who went before me in the difficult years," he said, "on whose shoulders I was privileged to stand to see where I might go."

The evening was not just about race issues. There was the usual parade of award presentations and acceptance speeches—you can see the complete list at And there were other unusually significant moments during the evening—some were profound and some were profoundly awkward.

Clearly, the shadow of September 11 was visible over the ceremony. Tom Cruise, who opened the show, commented on Hollywood's responsibility in these wounded, chaotic times: "And what of a night like tonight? Should we celebrate the joy and magic that movies bring? Well, dare I say it? More than ever." He praised the power of cinema to challenge and change a world divided by hatred. "A small scene, a gesture, even a glance between characters can cross lines, break through barriers, melt prejudice, just make us laugh … it brings us all together."

It would be easy to write off these claims as the usual Hollywood self-congratulation. Cruise's praise of movies sounded like a television evangelist describing the influence of the gospel. But then again, Jesus knew very well the power of a well-told story to change things. And Shakespeare understood that "the play's the thing" that can "catch the conscience" of the viewer. Many of this year's films prodded hearts and minds—In the Bedroom, A Beautiful Mind, Waking Life, The Lord of the Rings, and The Devil's Backbone, to name a few. Movies can move us, from one step to the next in our maturing as thinkers and servants. Even if their storytellers fail to recognize the Source of their inspiration.

But I come to bury Oscar as well as praise him. Actor Kevin Spacey prefaced the traditional tribute to deceased Hollywood greats with a moment of silence in honor of the victims of September 11. A wise and respectful choice—it would have seemed frivolous to mourn celebrity deaths without acknowledging a loss that the nation feels much more deeply and painfully. But Spacey's words following the silence did not improve matters. "If the events of this past year have taught us anything," he said, "they have shown us that we must celebrate and honor life even in the face of death." Hmm. Is that really the most profound lesson we have learned?

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Spacey continued: "Perhaps that's the true wonder of the medium that we gather here tonight to honor. Film freezes life in its finest hour with strength and courage and laughter and joy." True, cinema does allow us to look closely at life and to sift it for beauty, truth, and meaning. But then Spacey declared that the work of Hollywood "will last forever, and ever, and ever." Doubtful. Art has a lasting influence on culture, yes, but celluloid is fragile.

Others had more important, meaningful, and modest sentiments. Robert Redford, accepting a lifetime achievement award, offered humble observations in view of the nation's renewed sense of fragility in a dangerous world: "To be able to be a part of a freedom of expression that allows us as artists to tell our stories in our own way, about the human condition, the complexities of life, the world around us, is a gift … and not one to be taken lightly."

"A gift." It was a word repeated throughout the evening. Several celebrities, including Best Supporting Actress Jennifer Connelly, appeared genuinely humbled and grateful to be involved, referring to their opportunities and talents as "gifts." This may have reminded viewers of similar statements offered by Bono, U2's lead singer, when the band carried off several Grammies recently. Bono, however, went on to name the Source of the band's creative gifts. In Hollywood on Oscar night, the Giver remained largely unacknowledged, except in Halle Berry's grateful cries to God, during which she stammered, "I am so honored, I'm so honored, and I thank the Academy for choosing me to be the vessel from which this blessing might flow."

For a moment, all of the ego, makeup, and politics associated with the Oscars flickered like a burst of static, and something really beautiful shone through.

Can Moviegoers Trust Oscar?

The same question lingers the morning after the ceremony every year—Is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences really the authority? Many faithful moviegoers and critics would offer an emphatic no. If not, who is?

As Peter Travers pointed out in his rant in a recent Rolling Stone, the Oscars are awarded by a body of 6,000-plus industry insiders, many of whom are knee-deep in Hollywood politics. He explains, "By Academy rules, actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, and so on through fifteen branches with all the infighting that entails. But wait. Shouldn't actors know acting better than critics? You'd think so—though year after year they reward the obvious over the subtle. If critics voted on what gets nominated for an Oscar, you'd find the likes of Mulholland Drive, Memento, Ghost World, The Royal Tenenbaums, Monster's Ball, The Man Who Wasn't There, A.I., Ali, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Waking Life and Black Hawk Down competing for Best Picture."

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Roger Ebert also talked politics when he made his predictions. He argued that Ron Howard would win Best Director, but he cast Robert Altman as the dark horse, calling him "the best filmmaker in the house … on Oscar night. But he's an outsider, a maverick, and worst of all, a truly great director. Voters will wonder, if they honor him, who'll be next? Martin Scorsese?"

At their best, and at their worst, the Oscars serve to remind us that recognition and celebration of what is true, honorable, and excellent is a rare occasion among human beings. People are far more eager to praise the moneymakers; the comfortable and familiar; the outwardly sensational; whatever makes us feel smug in our political correctness. True excellence requires diligent attention, study, discussion, and the tests of each person's conscience, regardless of politics and hype.

Christian Critics Offer Differing Perspectives on "The Best"

This week, several religious press sites focused on Oscar-nominated films, re-assessing the industry's favorite picks. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops got in on the game early, even speculating about who would win and lose at the Oscars.

Stephen Carter of Christianity Today argues that A Beautiful Mind, which took home the coveted Best Picture award, offers a parable resonant with Christian principles. The lessons viewers can learn from Ron Howard's adaptation of John Ford Nash's story are profound, no matter how closely the movie's details adhere to history.

At The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jude Rutledge offered a forum of five critics from differing religious backgrounds, focusing on issues of morality and ethics in Oscar's Best Picture nominees. The reviewers included Michael Medved (syndicated columnist), Mary Ann Brussat (editor of Spirituality and Health magazine), Edward McNulty (publisher of Visual Parables, a film review journal), Ted Baehr (chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission and Movieguide), and Beth Luton Cook (director of the Office of Church Ministries Education at Candler School of Theology at Emory University).

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Phil Kloer (Access Atlanta) examined the value systems at work in the five Best Picture nominees. "Disregard the artistry, the acting, the special effects," he says, "and ask only how these movies speak to the soul. At first glance, A Beautiful Mind … andMoulin Rouge … couldn't appear more varied. Cut to the message, however, and they're essentially the same movie. Evaluating movies of this caliber only on their moral message may be tantamount to picking a movie theater based on its popcorn. Neither is it wise, however, to discuss a movie without taking its value system into account. Hollywood is sending messages with each new release … and when we see the movies, they're in us."

Other Christian critics offered their own "alternative Oscars". The Promontory Film Critics Circle, a loose association of 13 Christian film critics (Peter T. Chattaway, Steve Lansingh, J. Robert Parks, and me to name a few) voted on a list of favorites in several categories including "Best Narrative Film" and "Most Significant Exploration of Spiritual Issues in a Film." While most Christian film reviewers focus on what may offend viewers, these critics try to expand the conversation, examining the films the way literature students would analyze contemporary literature for spiritual themes and for technical excellence.

Elsewhere, Ted Baehr hosted this year's 10th Annual Movieguide Awards Gala and Report to the Entertainment Industry. This year's ceremony was held on March 20, and drew a crowd of industry professionals and a handful of celebrities. "We hold this event," Baehr explains, "in order to commend the good in Hollywood; to praise the movies that have strong Christian content."

Movieguide makes bold claims about its judgments regarding the year's best film. In an article on its Web site, Movieguide calls itself the "Standard By Which Other Reviews Are Measured" and "the definitive family guide to movies and entertainment." To demonstrate that its reviewers are wiser than other reviewers, they showed how Movieguide's recommendations have matched with the year's box office champions. "Box office figures for 2001 indicate that practically all of the major movie critics around the country are almost completely out of touch with the American public," the article states. "The Movieguide critics and judges … beat out such renowned critic associations as the American Film Institute, the National Board of Review and the Broadcast Film Critics, each of whose top movies only contained two from the Top 25 Movies at the Box Office in 2001."

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Of course, ask professional critics, and you'll find few whose make it a goal to align with box-office results. Most regularly express frustration with the naïve preferences of the public majority. The box office offers the worst in moviemaking as often, perhaps more often, than the best. Americans consume more fast food than health food—does that make it preferable? As a critic, I'd rather be "out of touch."

It is also worth noting that the box office is not a good indicator of what the public wants. Neither are the Oscars. These often reflect what moviegoers have chosen from a poor list of options. This meager menu is restricted by the current distribution system and the power of American studios. Christian film critic Doug Cummings (Chiaroscuro) argues that weekly totals only reflect "safe, corporate, middle class tastes."

Oscar-winners, blockbusters, flops—the Truth can be anywhere.

It remains important—essential—that Christians not only discern excellence in the work of others, but that they care about excellence in what they create. The integrity of "Christian art" has suffered as artists have become preoccupied with an evangelical agenda. Vision, imagination, and quality have suffered. Exodus 31 and 35 reveal God did not merely choose from among his chosen people when it came to building a tabernacle—he drew in artisans who were not even Jewish because they were the best. Similarly, when Jesus transformed water to wine, he made the best. God deserves it.

Gene Edward Veith (World) sees a continental shift in motion, and praises several of this year's films (and contemporary music as well) as evidence that Christian artists, even those like Tolkien who are no longer with us, are starting to gain some influence again. He praises The Fellowship of the Ring, "the profanity-free, epic high-fantasy, with its battle of good vs. evil—which is waged not just against external enemies but within the hearts even of the heroes—offers something like an imaginative cleansing from the dark, occult fantasies and the cynical action dramas that had been the norm."

Veith also praises the Oscar-nominated In the Bedroom. "[The film] expresses biblical truths in a realistic and disturbing way … [dealing] with the horrible consequences of adultery, revenge, and hate, exploring 'the mystery of iniquity' in an honest and wrenching way. The film is a good reminder that Christianity does not always manifest itself in uplifting or moralistic tales—welcome as those might be—but that it sometimes expresses itself more deeply by exploring the reality of sin in the depths of the human heart and our desperate need for redemption." (Movieguide denounced In the Bedroom as "boring … artsy … the biggest missed opportunity of the whole year and maybe even the last 10 years.")

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Veith's stance defends the value of movies that do not communicate explicitly Christian messages: "Just as the book of Esther is part of the Bible, even though it does not mention God," he argues, "works can portray a biblical worldview and model Christian character and virtues without being explicitly religious. After all, God reigns over the secular sphere, too, and His laws are at work even among those who do not know Him."

God's influence can be found in the secular sphere. His truth is also evident in the stories—even the commercial entertainment—produced by those who do not acknowledge him or know the Source of their inspiration. Vigilant believers may find the movie theatre to be a place of exploration where we can meet the Holy Spirit in places as unlikely and dark as Nash's Beautiful Mind, as sleazy as Moulin Rouge, and as fantastical as The Lord of the Rings. No matter how much money they make, no matter how many Oscars they win.

Related Elsewhere

Past review roundups are available in the Film Forum archives.