Colorblind at Last? This Year, a Record Five Black Actors Received Oscar Nominations. That's Amazing Progress-Maybe

By Smith, Sean; Samuels, Allison | Newsweek, February 12, 2007 | Go to article overview

Colorblind at Last? This Year, a Record Five Black Actors Received Oscar Nominations. That's Amazing Progress-Maybe


Smith, Sean, Samuels, Allison, Newsweek


Byline: Sean Smith And Allison Samuels

Black Hollywood has been keeping a secret. For decades, African-Americans had been so consistently overlooked by the Academy Awards that a private group began sponsoring the "Black Oscars." Every year, on the night before the actual Oscars, members of the community--including James Earl Jones, Whitney Houston, Samuel L. Jackson and Will Smith--gather at a Beverly Hills hotel to honor their own. "Everyone has on their tuxes, and you see all these people you want to work with who are cheering you on," says Malcolm D. Lee, director of "Undercover Brother" and cousin of Spike Lee. "It's a great feeling, and intimate--nice."

But on March 24, 2002, Halle Berry crossed the stage at the Kodak Theatre to become the first African-American woman to win an Oscar for best actress. (She also set the record for most tears shed during an acceptance speech.) Minutes later, Denzel Washington took the best-actor award, the first black man to do so in 38 years. It was, by any measure, historic. Since 2002, 11 black actors have earned Oscar nominations. Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman have both won, and at least one black actor has been nominated every year. This year a record-breaking five--Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith and Djimon Hounsou--will be walking the red carpet on Feb. 25. "I certainly always hoped I'd see this day," says Sidney Poitier, the first African-American man to win best actor. "I would have thought it would have occurred sooner."

Yet breaking the color barrier hasn't exactly been met with unmitigated joy in black Hollywood. The decades of exclusion have left a scar of skepticism. "I'm pleased all this is happening, but I hope and pray it's not just a phase," says Louis Gossett Jr., who won the 1982 best-supporting-actor Oscar for "An Officer and a Gentleman"--and never got another role of that stature. History is peppered with bursts of high-profile work for black actors that blazed out just as fast. Angela Bassett couldn't find work for a year after being nominated for "What's Love Got to Do With It." In the early '70s, Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson and Diahann Carroll all earned best-actress nominations--and then no African-American woman was nominated in that category again for more than a decade. Even Washington questions the long-term impact of his own win. After Foxx won the 2004 best-actor Oscar, Washington told NEWSWEEK, "Who knows what it means for the future? I think we have to take it for just what it is--African-Americans winning awards. Beyond that, we have to wait and see."

What's most startling is that the 2002 Oscars have left a bitter aftertaste because of the kinds of roles that scored Washington and Berry their statues. He played a corrupt cop in "Training Day"; she starred as a woman who falls in love with a racist in "Monster's Ball." A segment within black Hollywood believes that white Academy voters reward black actors for roles that reinforce stereotypes--the angry black man, the noble slave, the sexualized black woman--rather than challenge them. "There's a sense that in order to be embraced by the white community, you probably did something that violates your integrity within the black community," says actress Kerry Washington, who stars opposite Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland. …

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