Since then the debate about Hollywood diversity among the
African American community has continued to ebb and flow, but
one fact remains constant: nearly all black actors are still
only being recognized by the Academy Awards for playing
specifically black characters in film.
Four movies from 2013 have served to animate that conversation
during Hollywood's awards season: "12 Years A Slave," "Lee
Daniels' The Butler," "Fruitvale Station" and "Mandela: Long
Walk to Freedom." Only the first, Steve McQueen's historical
drama, made it to the Oscars.
This year, three black actors will be vying for Oscars at the
March 2 ceremony, and if "12 Years a Slave" wins best picture,
it will be the first film by a black director to do so.
But as black films and actors are being celebrated by Hollywood,
there is no clear indication that the industry has turned the
corner on increasing roles not based on race.
That could be partly explained by the underrepresentation of
black talent in senior positions in film studios and among the
6,000-plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and
Sciences, who vote for the Oscars.
"When roles in otherwise mainstream movies go to black actors
that aren't necessarily written for (them), I think that's a
point when there will have been some profile change," said Todd
Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of
Southern California and an expert on African American cinema and
culture. "We are not there yet."
Seven of the nine best-picture nominees in contention for an
Oscar this year, including large ensemble casts in "American
Hustle" and "The Wolf of Wall Street," do not have any black
actors in leading or supporting roles.
The two films that do, "Captain Phillips" and "12 Years a
Slave," have landed acting nods for stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, who
is up for best actor, and Lupita Nyong'o and Barkhad Abdi in the
British actor Ejiofor and Kenyan-Mexican actress Nyong'o both
play slaves in McQueen's pre-civil-war drama, while
Somali-American newcomer Abdi, in his first acting role,
portrays a Somali pirate who seizes command of a cargo ship.
FROM MAMMY TO 'THE HELP'
More than 50 black actors and actresses have been nominated and
won Oscars throughout the history of the Academy Awards. Most
have done so for playing specifically black characters, either
historical or fictional.
Washington managed to play an alcoholic airplane pilot in
"Flight," a role for which he was nominated for best actor in
2013. But that was one of the rare exceptions.
"Why couldn't there be an African American starring in the role
that Joaquin Phoenix plays (in 'Her')?" said Boyd. "When you see
that, then there's a change."
Nearly 75 years ago Hattie McDaniel broke the racial barrier by
winning for her supporting performance as the servant Mammy in
1939's "Gone With the Wind."
Twenty-four years later, Sidney Poitier became the first black
actor to win best actor for playing an African American worker
in 1963's "Lilies of the Field." It took another 38 years for
Berry to become the first black best-actress winner for her role
as an impoverished mother in the racially charged "Monster's
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Since 2002 about 20 black actors have been nominated across the
four categories, mostly for black roles. Some of the wins in this
group include Jamie Foxx for his portrayal of singer Ray Charles in
the biopic "Ray" and Octavia Spencer for her role as a maid in the
civil rights story "The Help."
The year 2011 was particularly dismal for black actors and
filmmakers at the Oscars: not one of the nominees among the nine
best-picture contenders or four acting categories featured any black
Even so, black actors may be faring better than other black
employees behind the camera or in studio offices.
A study of the Academy membership by the Los Angeles Times in 2012
estimated that nearly 94 percent of the 5,765 members at the time
were white, while only 2 percent were black. The Academy does not
break down its demographic makeup.
'BACK TO SQUARE ONE'
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African American president of the
Academy, said change can only come from the rank and file. "The men
and women behind the scenes in every aspect of producing, marketing
and distributing motion pictures will help to diversify the entire
landscape for the industry," she said.
In recent years, a film industry catering to black audiences has
taken off with releases from prolific filmmaker Tyler Perry and
comedies such as "The Best Man Holiday" and this year's rom-com
"About Last Night." A-list actors such as Berry, Washington, Viola
Davis and Will Smith have also found roles in action and big-budget
blockbusters for diverse audiences.
But black filmmakers, including those with previous Oscar success,
often still face challenges with Hollywood studios.
Daniels, who made 2009's Oscar-winnning "Precious," said he was
unable to convince studios to finance last year's historical film
"The Butler," featuring an ensemble cast of respected black actors
including Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.
"When I did 'Precious,' every studio told me that no one wanted
to see that film," said Daniels; he was "back to square one" with
The film was eventually distributed by the Weinstein Co and earned
Screen Actors Guild nominations, but was shut out of the Golden
Globes and Oscars. It did better at the box office, grossing $167
"Once (the studios) stop underestimating us, or we find African
Americans or blacks in powerful positions that can greenlight
(films)," said Daniels, "then there'll no longer be a problem."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Prudence
(This story corrects description to "pre-civil-war drama" in
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