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Oscar ‘race’ takes on new meaning

A record five African Americans are nominated this year. Does this signal a change or is it just a fluke? By Miki Turner
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Just after Halle Berry became the first African American woman to win a best actress Academy Award, and Denzel Washington became the first man of his race to claim that coveted statuette in 39 years, filmmaker Reggie Hudlin said their historic victories were the “best thing to happen to black folks since Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling.”

Considering the fact that it had taken 74 years for a woman of color to claim that top prize, and that only six African Americans — Hattie McDaniel (1939), Sidney Poitier (1963), Louis Gossett Jr. (1982), Washington (1989), Whoopi Goldberg (1990) and Cuba Gooding Jr. (1990) — had won Oscars in the acting categories, that night in 2002 was indeed a glorious and validating moment.

But despite Hudlin’s proclamation, other members of the black Hollywood community embraced the good news with guarded optimism. African American casting director Robi Reed said that regardless of Berry’s win it was unlikely that African American actresses would be offered leading roles in films before Julia Roberts, Renee Zellweger or Nicole Kidman. But, she added, “at least they’ll be thought of.”

Director Reggie Bythewood (“Biker Boyz”) added that: “Hollywood’s not saying ‘Hey, African Americans come join the party.’ They are essentially saying ‘Hey Denzel, you’re down with us, and hey Halle, you’re down with us. The rest of you, we don’t know.’”

A new day?
With a record five African Americans — Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy, Djimon Hounsou and Will Smith — nominated this year in the major categories, it appears that the party is becoming less and less exclusive.  The numbers are speaking loudly. Remember, only six African Americans won Oscars in the last century. There have already been four winners in the current millennium and three of the five — Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”), Hudson and Murphy (“Dreamgirls”) — are projected to collect golden boys on Feb. 25.

Is this a trend or has Hollywood finally gotten to a point where colorful performances are being feted regardless of the actor’s race? Is this cause for celebration or was 2006 just one of those fluke years that happen to include several noteworthy performances by African American actors that couldn’t be denied?

“I think if you look closely since 2002 there has been a pretty consistent record of people being nominated,” said Dr. Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. “Queen Latifah, the year following and Jamie Foxx actually won. And then there have been people like Don Cheadle and others who have sort of gotten recognized at that time. So, I think 2002 was a real turning point.

“What you see this year is a record number of nominations which basically says that the movies are being made where people are able to perform in films that people would consider Oscar worthy.”

Is the door fully open or just ajar?

‘We can rejoice’For most in black Hollywood the jury is still out on the last question, but the vast majority agree that it is important to celebrate any gains.

“Oh hell, we can rejoice! Oh yes, you eat when there’s food! You feast when there’s food because it will sustain you for those famine days,” says actress Lorraine Toussaint (“Any Day Now,” “CSI”). It’s an ebb and flow. I don’t even look at what’s not there. I’m always much more interested in seeing the glass being half full. And it’s overflowing this season with real quality actors that are so deserving. So, oh yeah, I’m jumping and shouting.”

Loretta Devine (“Dreamgirls,” “Grey’s Anatomy”) concurs in part.

“I think so much could not be denied,” Devine said. “I think this was an incredible year of good movies. Will Smith in ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ and Forest Whitaker is just so good in ‘The Last King of Scotland.’ I’m so proud that we did phenomenal work this year.

“I hope it continues. The Academy has a way of hit and miss. They’ll [reward us] and then slack off so no one is nominated for another 20 years. So I hope that’s not the case this time and that we’re embracing inclusion.”

That appears to be the case. Not only are five African Americans nominated, but there’s a significant number of Latinos up for Oscars this year — including the creative team behind “Babel” (director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga). Additionally, Asian actress Rinko Kikuchi and Latina actress Adriana Barraza will duke it out in the best supporting actress category.

“For blacks, Latinos and Asians the door is opening wider,” says filmmaker John Singleton (“Boyz N the Hood,” “Rosewood”). “It’s not a matter of the door opening it’s a matter of this is a reflection of where we are in this country. Different people are going to movies for different reasons. The people in Hollywood can’t sit in the ivory tower and say we’re going to make these movies and have nothing but white people in them and expect everybody go see them. Even in big-budget Hollywood pictures they are finding ways to make the cast more multi-ethnic so that everyone goes to the films for different reasons.”

Singleton is right. Last year’s biggest films — “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” “Cars,” “Night at the Museum” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” all featured diverse casts. And other films, such as “Blood Diamond,” in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Hounsou are nominated for Oscars, prove that viewers are interested in seeing different perspectives on stories out of third-world African nations that ultimately have a global impact.

“[These films] are important to see because they have black people in them and they are making sense and everybody is always saying there are no images,” said actress Alfre Woodard, who was a best supporting actress nominee in 1984 for “Cross Creek.” “Even if Forest was not brilliant and amazing. Even if Djimon and Leo didn’t do a spectacular job of working that story and even if none of it was true, we still needed to go see it and thank goodness someone at the Academy did.”

Real African American stories being toldIf there is in fact a trend to all of the recent nominations for African Americans it’s that several of the nominees are playing real-life characters. “That’s the thing no one is talking about,” says Boyd. “There’s more black historical figures having movies made about them and that’s pretty significant.”

It does seem that African American biopics have become increasingly popular. Foxx won his Oscar for portraying Ray Charles, Smith is nominated for playing Chris Gardner, a man who went from living on the streets to becoming CEO of his own company; Whitaker, the front-runner in this year’s best actor race aptly personified Idi Amin; and even Hudson’s Effie White is loosely based on Florence Ballad, one of the founding members of The Supremes.

Additionally, many African American filmmakers and actors including Berry, Singleton, Washington and Whitaker have biopics in development.

“There are so many stories that can be told,” says Haitian actor/filmmaker Jimmy Jean-Louis (“Heroes”). “But I think the door is still just ajar. We did have some great actors who came up with some good performances, but it doesn’t mean that the door is wide open. You look at what’s been released and you see how many black actors you have out there in them. It’s step by step. It’s good to have five people nominated but we just need more films. We don’t have enough black actors or directors.

“But it’s good even for me to have Djimon nominated. It opens the door slightly for someone like me, so I’m happy about that.”

Where are the writers and directors?According to Suzanee dePasse, CEO of dePasse Entertainment, there are even more doors that need to be opened.

“At the end of the day we haven’t broken into very many other categories,” dePasse said. “So screenplay is still a problem, directing is still a problem. It’s not just about acting. I’m really looking forward to the day when we’re represented in all categories and disciplines.”

For that to happen, African Americans in Hollywood must not become complaisant with this current string of nominations.

“We can’t be satisfied where we are now,” says Vivica A. Fox. “We’ve got to approach every day, every project and every situation like it’s still a struggle. We have to keep pushing because all of this could roll back. We’ve seen it before.”

Hopefully, that won’t be the case. Sure, it took 74 years for an African American woman to win best actress and there have been long gaps between some of the winners in the supporting categories, but it looks like African Americans will continue to have a strong presence during awards season if: “We get the right material,” says Tisha Campbell-Martin (“My Wife and Kids,” “Martin”). “It’s all about the material. And it’s about the bottom line. You cannot deny the talent.”

Berry is pleased that she may have had something to do with all of this door opening back in ‘02.

“It’s good,” she said when asked what she thought about the historic five nominations. “It’s well deserved which is what makes it even more important. The work this year has been phenomenal, breathtaking and unexpected in some ways with Jennifer Hudson coming along as the underdog who blew up. And it’s exciting to be a part of this time in history. I’m here as it is actually changing and that’s meaningful.”

It’s true. Hollywood is evolving and African Americans are caught up in the winds of change. That’s one of the reasons why Boyd thinks that there will be no more “black-outs” at the Oscars or any other Hollywood awards show.

“I think once that hurdle was crossed in 2002 it’s hard to go backwards,” Boyd said. “Sure, there will years that there will be no nominees which means that there are no films in the pipeline where people are able to play the types of roles that would get that consideration. But I think what happened in 2002 changed everything so that this is something that we’re going to see regularly from now on.”

Miki Turner is a freelance writer/producer in Los Angeles and can be reached at .