LOS ANGELES -- 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.
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.
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.
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."
"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 also is critical for minorities, Smith and Singleton said. Smith was eligible nearly a decade ago but did not join till last year, he said. Singleton joined after he earned his Oscar nomination.
The academy does not gather specific demographic information on members, but the percentage of black and other minority members is less than their ratio in the general population, said Bruce Davis, academy executive director.
Most members are invited to join by specific academy divisions such as the acting, directing or writing branches.
"These are not guys slow to embrace people of color," Davis said. "They're aware of the (racial) disparity and happy to have people of color come in."
While reserving judgment on whether this year's nominations signal better things to come, advocates for blacks in Hollywood hope at least one of the three nominees takes home an Oscar to go along with Poitier's honorary award.
"Wouldn't that be a great photo? A photograph of Sidney Poitier linked arm in arm with one of those three?" said Warrington Hudlin, president of the Black Filmmaker Foundation, which promotes black film projects. "Wouldn't that be the best photo on earth?"
The list of past black actors who have won Oscars:
1939: Hattie McDaniel, best supporting actress, "Gone With the Wind"
1963: Sidney Poitier, best actor, "Lilies of the Field"
1982: Louis Gossett Jr., best supporting actor, "An Officer and a Gentleman"
1989: Denzel Washington, best supporting actor, "Glory"
1990: Whoopi Goldberg, best supporting actress, "Ghost"
1996: Cuba Gooding Jr., best supporting actor, "Jerry Maguire"
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