The Academy Award nominations of Will Smith ("Ali"), Denzel Washington ("Training Day") and Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball") have made this a historic Oscar season. It's the first time two African-American males have been nominated in the best-actor category. Also, Berry is the first black woman nominated for best actress since Angela Bassett in 1993 for "What's Love Got to Do With It."
"I'm hoping that given the climate and the new awareness that has been created around this issue of diversity, this won't be something that will be here today and gone tomorrow," said NAACP President Kwesi Mfume. "But the wonderful thing about all of this is that each one of these individuals got this nomination because of their skill level and not because of their skin color."
It has been 30 years since so many black actors have been honored.
In 1972 Diana Ross ("Lady Sings the Blues") and Cicely Tyson ("Sounder") were nominated for best actress, Paul Winfield ("Sounder") was nominated for best actor and "Sounder" was nominated for best film. Though none of them won, never had so many nonwhite actors been nominated in the same year.
In a phone interview, Smith said it's time more blacks were recognized.
"I view it as we blacks in America are 13 percent of the population and we have to work that much harder to be noticed."
Berry said the nominations signal a step in the right direction.
"I'm so proud to be a part of this," she said via telephone from London. "What this means to me is that things are changing. ... It is a big deal that three black people have been nominated. ... This is one big, huge step in that goal toward equality -- not just in movies but in life."
Washington, who has been nominated five times and won best supporting actor for "Glory" in 1989, was unavailable for comment.
Until this year, the Academy Awards have been bleak reminders of how far Hollywood has to go in diversifying its casts and story lines. For films from 1990 through 1999, only 19 nonwhites (including Asians, Native Americans, African Americans and Latinos), or about 8 percent of the nominees, were included in the top five categories: actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress and director. Only two -- Whoopi Goldberg (supporting actress in "Ghost") and Cuba Gooding Jr. (supporting actor in "Jerry Maguire") -- won. Never has an African American won best actress.
Sidney Poitier, who won for leading actor in 1963 for "Lilies of the Field," is the only black actor to ever receive an Oscar in this category.
The bleak nomination statistics are made more puzzling by the extent of nonwhite talent in Hollywood. More than 19 percent of the Screen Actors Guild membership and nearly 8 percent of the Directors Guild of America is African American, Latino or Asian. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, in 1999 nearly 30 percent of the American moviegoing audience was Latino, African American or Asian.
These statistics have prompted protests, separate awards ceremonies for minorities and forums on diversity in Hollywood. But attempts to draw attention to the issue, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1996 protest outside the Oscars, have proved fruitless.
"The best help is what has happened this year," said Berry. "That speaks more than any picket outside of any venue."