LOS ANGELES - Denzel and Halle may have company in the Academy Awards record book.
Morgan Freeman's supporting-actor prize Sunday for the boxing drama "Million Dollar Baby" positioned black performers to take two of the four acting awards for only the second time in the Oscars' 77-year history.
"It means that Hollywood is continuing to make history," Freeman said backstage. "We're evolving with the rest of the world."
Jamie Foxx, who competed against Freeman for the supporting trophy with his turn in the hit man thriller "Collateral," was considered a virtual lock for the best-actor Oscar for the title role in the Ray Charles biopic "Ray."
The only time two blacks won was three years ago, when Denzel Washington won best actor for "Training Day" and Halle Berry took best actress for "Monster's Ball."
This time out, blacks overall had their best year ever at the Oscars, earning a record five of 20 acting nominations, including two for Foxx. Don Cheadle was nominated as best actor and Sophie Okonedo as best supporting actress for "Hotel Rwanda." Okonedo lost out in her category to Cate Blanchett of "The Aviator."
"It's a great night tonight. We have four black nominees tonight. It's kinda like Def Oscar Jam tonight," irreverent host Chris Rock said during his opening monologue.
Nominated three times previously, Freeman, 67, won for his role as a worldly wise ex-boxer doing odd jobs at a gym run by his best pal (Clint Eastwood). The role was trademark Freeman, an understated mix of rascally humor, wispy melancholy, untarnished decency and towering inner strength.
For most of their history, the Oscars have largely been a whites-only affair. Blacks account for just 3.2 percent of the acting nominations, and while that figure is up from 2.8 percent three years ago, it remains a weak track record, considering blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Yet this year's record five nominations present a fresh indication that Hollywood's race barriers finally are falling.
Until recent years, black actors had few opportunities to appear in serious films that might catch Oscar attention.
"Black movies don't have real names, they have names like 'Barbershop,'" Rock quipped. "That's not a name, that's just a location."
There were only a handful of black nominees in the first four decades of the Oscars and just two winners, supporting actress Hattie McDaniel for 1939's "Gone With the Wind" and best actor Sidney Poitier for 1963's "Lilies of the Field."
A surge of nominations for blacks in the early 1970s was followed by a long drought. In the 1980s, black actors received a steady trickle of nominations, with two winning the supporting-actor prize (Louis Gossett Jr. for 1982's "An Officer and a Gentlemen" and Washington for 1989's "Glory").
The 1990s brought two more wins, Whoopi Goldberg as supporting actress in 1990's "Ghost" and Cuba Gooding Jr. as supporting actor in 1996's "Jerry Maguire."
Berry and Washington's wins three years ago were viewed as a sign of progress, though at the time, doubters said they would wait to see if those triumphs signaled real change or were merely an aberration.
"We're hoping for the day when that's (race) no longer mentioned," Freeman said before the ceremony. "And we're on our way."
On The Net:
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
The Academy Awards on ABC-TV