Halle Berry became the first African-American to win the Best Actress Oscar and Denzel Washington followed Sidney Poitier as only the second black to win the Best Actor award.
A Beautiful Mind took home the Best Picture prize and several of the most coveted awards, including honors for director, supporting actress and adapted screenplay.
But in an evening where Poitier received a special honorary Oscar, the achievements of black actors highlighted the 74th Academy Awards.
Berry burst into tears as she accepted her award for her daring role as the widow of a death-row inmate who strikes up an unlikely relationship with her husband's executioner.
"This moment is so much bigger than me," said Berry, 35. "This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll … It's for every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."
Berry's acceptance speech ran about three minutes: "It's been 74 years, I've got to take this time," she said, referring to the number of years that the Oscars have been presented.
The Best Actress race also featured Nicole Kidman's turn as a dying nightclub singer in Moulin Rouge; Judi Dench as British writer Iris Murdoch in Iris; Sissy Spacek as a bitter, grieving mother in In the Bedroom; and Renee Zellweger, who played the lovelorn Londoner in Bridget Jones's Diary.
Washington: ‘I’ll Always Be Chasing You, Sidney’
Usually known for playing good guys, Washington won for his portrayal as a corrupt cop in Training Day. He turned his acceptance speech into a tribute to Poitier. "I'll always be chasing you, Sidney," he said. "I'll always be following in your footsteps."
Poitier, who won his Oscar in 1963 for Lilies of the Field, received special honors earlier in the evening.
"Before Sidney, African-American actors had to take supporting roles that were easy to cut out in certain parts of the country," Washington said. "But you couldn't cut Sidney Poitier out of a Sidney Poitier picture."
"I arrived in Hollywood at the age of 22, at a time that was different than today's," Poitier recalled. "[It was] a time in which the odds against me standing here tonight 53 years later would not have fallen in my favor," he said. "Back then no route had been established for where I was hoping to go."
Only 26 black actors have been nominated for Academy Awards. Before tonight, only six had won — including Washington, who won a Supporting Actor award for Glory in 1989.
A Feathered Whoopi Enters
Whoopi Goldberg, hosting her fourth Oscar show, made a grand entrance from the ceiling. Decked out in a peacock-like feathered outfit with a gold top hat, she was lowered on a trapeze to the theater floor in a spoof of Moulin Rouge.
"I am the original sexy beast," she said.
Goldberg had been criticized for past Oscar shows for some of her risque jokes and had sworn she would never do another show. But after Sept. 11, she changed her mind.
While the show did strike a serious tone at times, Goldberg kept things moving along, and still found the opportunity to get a bit racy. "Oscar is the only 74-year-old man in Hollywood who doesn't need Viagra to last three hours," she joked.
Still, there were several tributes to those who suffered in the Sept. 11 attacks. Tom Cruise introduced the first of several taped segments commemorating America's love affair with the silver screen, asking if movies have lost their relevance in a time of war.