Oscars 2012: An effort to be inclusive

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With open arms, the Oscars welcomed diversity back to its ceremony, but the embrace turned out to be more awkward than warm.

Last year's Academy Awards were roundly criticized by several observers for its notable lack of diversity. Actor Samuel L. Jackson felt the omission was so glaring, he sent an angry e-mail to a Los Angeles Times reporter saying that black actors were apparently not "hip enuf" for the awards show.

But the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday was noticeably more diverse, placing blacks in marquee spots throughout the ceremony.

Even before host Billy Crystal took the stage, Morgan Freeman spoke about the glory of films. James Earl Jones received one of the first salutes from Crystal. Pharrell Williams, one of the show's music producers, played the drums alongside percussionist Sheila E. and Octavia Spencer received the evening's first standing ovation when she won the supporting actress Oscar for her role as a downtrodden maid in"The Help."

But the most anticipated nod to African Americans —a lead actress win for "The Help's" Viola Davis — never came. Despite having won several awards coming in to the ceremony, including the Screen Actors Guild award, Davis lost the Oscar to academy favorite Meryl Streep.

The evening had its share of other uncomfortable moments and instances of what appeared to be cultural insensitivity, courtesy of Crystal and Natalie Portman.

The host came under fire almost immediately in the Twitterverse soon after Spencer won her Oscar when Crystal talked about how much he loved "The Help" and came out of the theater wanting to hug the first black woman he saw "which, from Beverly Hills, is about a 45-minute drive."

Also provoking negative reaction was Crystal's appearance in blackface as Sammy Davis Jr.during the show's opening film montage, which tweaked several of the nominated films. Crystal as Davis Jr. — a bit he did often in his "Saturday Night Live"days—appeared with Justin Bieber during a parody of Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris."

Tweeted one viewer named Lisa: "So glad they got rid of the producer who used a homophoic slur so we could get Billy Crystal doing racial jokes and blackface."

The jokes played slightly better at the show itself. Of the Beverly Hills quip, one studio executive who did not wish to be named, said, "It was kind of funny. He was almost sending up the academy for the diversity issue, tweaking them a little."

"Margin Call"screenwriter J.C. Chandor said, "I thought it was a good joke, but it missed. Plus, Beverly Hills is actually a diverse place in a weird way. It's rich people, but it's rich people from all over the world."

Late in the show, Portman's scripted introduction of the five lead actor nominees left some feeling her wording was potentially more insulting to minorities than complimentary to Demián Bichir, the Mexican star of "A Better Life."Saluting his portrayal of illegal immigrant Carlos Galindo, Portman said the actor "made us face a very true portrait of a human being no one had ever dared us to consider before."

Chris Rock may have unexpectedly best defined the continuing awkwardness of Hollywood and race when he made his presentation of the award for outstanding animated film by referring to his voice work in the "Madagascar" movies and Eddie Murphy's role in the "Shrek" films.

Rock joked that while a fat woman can play a skinny princess, a wimpy guy can play a gladiator and a white guy can play an Arabian prince, "if you're a black man, you can play a donkey or a zebra. You can't play white."

greg.braxton@latimes.com

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