Black performers score golden year

Three black actors nominated for Oscars after 29 years of mostly whites

— It had never happened before, three black performers nominated in the lead-acting categories for the Academy Awards. Surely, it was a sign that Hollywood's top honors finally were catching up with the nation's cultural diversity.

That was for 1972, though. It took 29 years for it to happen again � with Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball," Will Smith in "Ali" and Denzel Washington in "Training Day" getting nominations for 2001.

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Actress Halle Berry appears with Billy Bob Thornton in a scene from the film "Monster's Ball,"in this undated file photo. Berry, a best actress Oscar nominee for her work in the film, was one of three black performers, along with Denzel Washington and Will Smith, competing in the lead Oscar categories.

Rarely a standard-bearer for racial inclusion, the Oscars offer possibly their highest profile ever for black performers next month. Besides the three acting nominations, Whoopi Goldberg, one of only two black women to win an acting Oscar, returns as host. Sidney Poitier, the only black to earn a lead-acting Oscar, receives an honorary award for lifetime achievement.

Black advocates like the lineup for the Oscars on March 24 but hesitate to say it marks a turning point for an awards ceremony traditionally dominated by white performers. Some say it could be an anomaly, a rare year such as 1972 that produced three Oscar-worthy performances by blacks, or last year when two Hispanic actors earned nominations, with Benicio Del Toro winning the supporting-role honor for "Traffic."

"It's progress, but no net gain. In a sense, we're where we were in 1972. It's taken us 30 years to get to that point again," said Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "It's too early to say this represents a trend. I'd be curious to see what happens next year or the year after."

"Let's see some kind of track record before I start jumping up and down," said Frank Smith Jr., acting board president of the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

Sparse representation

Of 278 acting Oscars awarded since 1929, only six � 2.2 percent � were won by blacks, among them Hattie McDaniel (supporting actress for "Gone With the Wind"), Goldberg (supporting actress for "Ghost"), Washington (a five-time Oscar nominee who won supporting actor for "Glory") and Poitier (best actor for "Lilies of the Field").

In three of the last four years, no blacks were nominated in the four acting categories. Three years ago, when no black actors were nominated, awards presenter Chris Rock joked that the ceremony looked like the "million white-man march." That same year, amid furor over Elia Kazan's honorary Oscar because the director named names during the blacklist era, host Goldberg kidded that she thought the "blacklist was Hattie McDaniel and me."

Blacks make up 13 percent of the population but have earned just 2.8 percent of Oscar acting nominations, among them the three 1972 contenders, Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield for "Sounder" and Diana Ross for "Lady Sings the Blues." All three lost.

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Actor Sidney Poitier appears with Lilia Skala in a scene from the 1963 classic "Lillies of the Field." Poitier, who won an Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Homer Smith, is to receive an honorary award for lifetime achievement at this year's Oscars.

Incremental progress

Many blacks in Hollywood say there has been incremental progress toward choicer roles. In the early years of film, blacks generally were relegated to caricatured comic parts. Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, while continuing to play off racial stereotypes, at least put more black actors to work.

In the 1980s and 1990s, black actors such as Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Samuel L. Jackson and Rock developed box-office clout in mainstream films. Some, such as Washington and Smith, have traded on their commercial success to get more serious roles.

Smith said "Ali," a film about a "black Muslim, probably the most controversial figure in black American history," probably would not have been made if he had not signed on with Sony for "Men in Black 2," this summer's sequel to Smith's alien-comedy smash.

"I think the roles are opening up slightly," said Smith, a first-time Oscar nominee known mainly for comedy and action romps. "I believe a lot of it has to do with box office. ... For black actors and all minority actors, I think box-office success is going to drive the ability and willingness of Hollywood to make, not necessarily the smaller, but the more intellectually based pictures with better roles for minorities."

Smith and others say that as more blacks gain opportunities to direct, they must focus on higher-minded projects to create stronger roles.

"Where is the 'In the Bedroom' counterpart in black America?" Smith said, referring to the low-budget best-picture nominee about a white family hit by tragedy. "I think it's the responsibility of the black performers and writers and directors to make that happen."

Better-quality films needed

"All that energy needs to be put toward making and supporting better-quality films," agreed John Singleton, the only black filmmaker ever nominated for a best-director Oscar, for 1991's "Boyz N the Hood."

Greater representation among the 5,700 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is critical for minorities, Smith and Singleton said. Singleton joined after he earned his Oscar nomination.

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