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The Black Perspective

Is it just me, or have aliens come down from the heavens and replaced the normally stodgy Academy voters with intelligent, thinking, rational humans who actually watch and enjoy movies like the rest of us?

In an almost unprecedented move, three black actors have been nominated by the Academy for Oscar consideration as Best Actor or Best Actress.

Never before have there been two black actors up for Best Actor in the same year (Denzel Washington in Training Day and Will Smith in Ali). And Halle Berry’s (Monster’s Ball) nomination for Best Actress is the first for a black woman since Angela Bassett’s 1994 nod for her work in What’s Love Got to Do With It?.

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It’s been 30 years since so many black actors have been thus honored by the Academy. In 1973, Paul Winfield (Sounder) was nominated for Best Actor and Cicely Tyson (Sounder) and Diana Ross (Lady Sings the Blues) were up for Best Actress, though none of them won.

Partially, this is an acknowledgement that some of the best, most gifted actors of this generation are black.

Many of these actors (Smith, Jamie Foxx, Damon Wayans, Bernie Mac) have come from the traditional proving grounds of TV. Others, such as Ice-T, Ice Cube and LL Cool J, have come straight from the world of hip-hop. Whatever the path, these actors have become dependable stars and role players on the movie scene.

And partially, this is the Academy recognizing Hollywood’s changing landscape.

Despite the fact that 19 percent of the current SAG membership is non-white (including racial minorities other than blacks), only 18 non-whites (or about 8 percent) were nominated in the top acting categories from 1990 to 1999. Worse, only three of those nominated (Cuba Gooding Jr., Supporting Actor, Denzel Washington, Supporting Actor, Whoopi Goldberg, Supporting Actress) won.

The only black performer to win a Best Actor statuette is Sidney Poitier (who is receiving an honorary Oscar this year) for his astonishing work in 1963’s Lilies of the Field. There have never been any black Best Actress winners.

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Even Hollywood stars think the Academy’s record for rewarding black actors’ work is disgraceful.

As Julia Roberts opined to Newsweek, “I cannot absorb living in a world where I have an Oscar for Best Actress and Denzel doesn’t have one for Best Actor.”

Given the current police-loving climate, Denzel (who has won one of his five nominations and should have won more) probably won’t win. Given the Academy’s skepticism over newly nominated actors, Berry probably won’t win. The trio’s best bet thus rests on Will Smith’s now considerable shoulders. Smith may have surprised many Academy voters with his deep, emotional portrayal of the legendary Muhammad Ali, but he didn’t surprise those of us who remember his performance in Six Degrees of Separation.

One can only hope that we can mark this date as a measure of true progress in Hollywood; that we don’t have to wait another 30 years to see the Academy laud black actors again.

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