On the Beat: Catholics, Whitewater and Cinema

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Top Three Stories of the Week:
1)The Catholic Church scandal
2)The final Whitewater report
3)Denzel Washington and Halle Berry

Late last week, too late to make my deadline, I received the following e-mail: "Chris: Re: your suggestions on how the church should change: Before anything I'd abolish hell."

The electronic missive was from Frank McCourt, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir "Angela's Ashes." I had asked him to comment on the big story of the last few weeks — pederast/pedophile priests in the Catholic Church — and, earlier, he had offered up a few suggestions including bringing back the Church's universal language, Latin (you can read his other ideas in a special Forum in this week's TIME). Later on, however, he came up with another thought: abolish the underworld. His e-mail continued: "[Hell] is the big stick Mother Church uses all the time to keep the faithful in line. Abolish hell and you make an 'honest woman' of the church. You can't have love in a church based on fear of flames. (This is much more important than what I suggested about restoring Latin) — Frank McCourt."

His argument for doing away with damnation was a good one. However, with a number of pedophile/pederast priests on lam or beyond the reach of the criminal courts (and human punishment) because of the statute of limitations, no doubt many Catholics who might not have believed in hell before, might be hoping that one exists now.

Last week a report most people will never read provided what will hopefully be the last words on a scandal that many people have already read too much about. The report was titled "Final Report of the Independent Counsel in Re: Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan Association." Although the Whitewater scandal was splashed on the front pages of newspapers and the covers magazines for years, the final report received relatively little coverage. Its 2,090 pages spread out over five volumes is the result of a $64 million investigation by the independent counsel's office. The Washington Post editorialized about the report: "The major problem with the report is that it comes so late....In the future, it is critical for major public integrity investigations to be focused more narrowly and to proceed more swiftly so their results can be useful for voters, and not just for historians."

The Independent Counsel's report concluded that there was insufficient evidence to convict former President Clinton or former First Lady Hillary Clinton of any crimes related to the failed Whitewater real estate development. A headline in the London Independent labeled it "The most expensive exoneration in history." Obviously different observers have different takes on the significance of the Whitewater scandal. But it is sad to note that after months of media buildup, the final report on the matter has gotten less attention than Paula Jones' recent celebrity boxing match on Fox.

At the 74th annual Academy Awards, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry stepped into history. Berry became the first black woman ever to win a Best Actress Oscar and Washington became the first black man to win a Best Actor Oscar since Sidney Poitier in the 1963 movie "Lillies of the Field." It was an historic and welcome event, but the actors themselves, not the Hollywood establishment, deserve the credit for making it happen. Berry and Washington weren't handed anything by the Hollywood establishment, and were forced to fight for everything they've gotten in their careers.

Interestingly, many of their biggest opportunities were provided by other filmmakers of color. Berry's first big break was getting a small but showy part in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever." Early in her career, I interviewed Berry and she told me for her part in the miniseries "Queen" producers initially refused to meet with her — she had to pay for a plane ride to Los Angeles and pick up her own hotel bill in order to get a screen test. For "The Flintstones" Berry had to fight to get filmmakers to cast her and thus integrate Bedrock — in the end she took a role as a character called "Sharon Stone" that had been written for another actress — namely Sharon Stone. Berry took her role in "Monster's Ball" for virtually no money.

Denzel Washington didn't get a meaty leading-man romantic role until Spike Lee wrote one for him for his movie "Mo' Better Blues." Lee provided Washington with another plum role when he cast him as the lead in "Malcolm X." Another one of Washington's best roles came in "Mississippi Masala," a movie directed by an Indian director, Mira Nair. "Training Day" was directed by a black filmmaker, Antoine Fuqua.

Audiences have responded with their pocketbooks; on the very weekend Washington and Berry were receiving their awards, Wesley Snipes, another black actor, finished No.1 at the box office with his film "Blade II" beating out such heavy-hitters as "Ice Age" and the re-release of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." But black actors still aren't fully embraced by the Hollywood establishment. Recently, Will Smith (who lost out on Oscar night to Washington in the Best Actor category) went public with charges that John Grisham didn't want Smith in the movie version of one of his books because the character, as he wrote it, was white. It was good to see some history being made at the Academy Awards — Washington and Berry deserved their prizes — but if black actors want to continue to make history, they'll have to keep manufacturing it themselves.