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Black actors gain record Oscar esteem

Foxx, Cheadle, Freeman among this year’s nominees
/ Source: The Associated Press

Six years ago, Chris Rock joked that the Academy Awards looked like the “million white man march” for its traditional under-representation of blacks.

This time, with Rock taking his maiden voyage as host of Hollywood’s biggest party, he will preside over a record Oscar night for black actors, who earned five of the 20 nominations.

Jamie Foxx was the first black performer to receive two nominations in the same year, as lead actor for his soul-stirring portrayal of Ray Charles in “Ray” and supporting actor for “Collateral,” playing a wily cabdriver who holds his own against a relentless hit man.

In the best-actor race, Foxx’s competition includes Don Cheadle for “Hotel Rwanda,” in which he plays real-life innkeeper Paul Rusesabagina, who shielded refugees during the Rwandan genocide. Sophie Okonedo earned a supporting-actress nomination as Rusesabagina’s wife.

Among Foxx’s rivals for supporting actor is Morgan Freeman, who earned his fourth nomination, playing an ex-boxer and resident sage of a run-down gym in “Million Dollar Baby.”

The wave of nominations comes three years after another historic Oscar celebration for blacks, when Halle Berry won the best-actress award for “Monster’s Ball” and Denzel Washington took the best-actor honor for “Training Day.” It was the first time blacks won both lead-acting prizes, and with “Ali” star Will Smith also nominated, the first time in 29 years that blacks earned three nominations in the lead categories.

“I think you have to look toward Denzel and Halle for being such great ambassadors,” said Foxx, considered the favorite to win the best-actor prize for “Ray.” “They made it look good, did they not? It was so great to see them up there holding those statues. Whatever race you are, you couldn’t help but think they looked great.

“To be wrapped in that beautiful black skin, it made young actors such as myself want to do more in film and be able to go to that big dance. The opportunities are getting better.”

Rock’s presence as host will add to the luster for blacks at the Feb. 27 Oscars. The feature-length documentary nominees include “Tupac: Resurrection,” a portrait of slain rapper Tupac Shakur, and the documentary short-subject category features “Mighty Times: The Children’s March,” chronicling anti-segregation efforts in Alabama in 1963.

Among foreign-language contenders is the first South African film nominated for an Oscar, “Yesterday,” about an HIV-positive woman trying to plan a future for her daughter.

Box office heatThe Oscar attention came at a time when movies headlined by blacks, Ice Cube’s “Are We There Yet” and Samuel L. Jackson’s “Coach Carter,” were Nos. 1 and 2 at the box office the previous weekend.

Following in the next couple of months are Will Smith’s “Hitch,” Queen Latifah’s “Beauty Shop,” Anthony Anderson’s “King’s Ransom,” Martin Lawrence’s “Rebound,” Bernie Mac’s “Guess Who” and Cedric the Entertainer’s “The Honeymooners.”

Not a bad spring lineup for an industry that had only a handful of black performers with consistent mainstream appeal before the mid-1990s, such as Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Sidney Poitier.

“I think it’s a sure sign diversity is finally coming to Hollywood,” said Ron Brewington, Hollywood correspondent for Radio One/XM, a satellite service aimed at black audiences. “African-Americans spend a tidy sum for Hollywood, and we feel like Hollywood owes us something. Now it seems like Hollywood is listening.”

In the academy’s 77-year history, a scant 3.2 percent of the acting nominations have gone to blacks. While that figure has risen from 2.8 percent three years ago, it remains a weak track record given that blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population.

The Oscars were largely a whites-only affair in their first four decades, with just eight black nominees before 1970 and two winners, Poitier for best actor with 1963’s “Lilies of the Field” and Hattie McDaniel for supporting actress with 1939’s “Gone With the Wind.”

Including this year’s five contenders, there have been 38 black nominees since 1970, six of them winning. Previously, the most black nominees in a single year was three.

“We’re looking at slow and steady progress,” said Kevin Willmott, who directed “CSA: The Confederate States of America,” a faux documentary due in theaters this summer examining the racist nation that might have resulted if the South had won the Civil War.

“But the thing that always counts in these kind of successful moments is: Will it translate to more of these films being produced by studios? Will it make it easier for us to go to studios with films that deal with black people? Will they give us the ‘black films don’t do well overseas’ line, or will they really try to invest in making these kinds of movies a success?”

The outlook is more positive than ever, with stars such as Washington, Berry, Queen Latifah, Murphy, Lawrence and Ice Cube opening doors for black actors to gain mainstream appeal, particularly among younger moviegoers who drive the box office.

“I feel our audience, the MTV generation, is colorblind in that respect,” said Lauren Lazin, director of the MTV-produced “Tupac: Resurrection.” “They are very open and eager to hear stories about lives that are like theirs and that are not like theirs. Diversity is something innate to this younger generation.”

“Hotel Rwanda” nominee Okonedo noted that the Oscar field also had included such potential black nominees as Kerry Washington and Regina King for “Ray,” a sign that real variety was coming to Hollywood.

“I feel like I’m in a great year at the Oscars,” said Okonedo, a British actress co-starring in Charlize Theron’s upcoming action flick “Aeon Flux.” “There’s not only a diversity of actors but also diversity of films, little-budget films to great big ones.

“That’s what it’s all about. Not just the same old formula, the same old people, going up for the same old type of awards. I think it’s really turned a corner this year.”