A watershed for the Oscars

At the Oscars next month, an unprecedented contest will unfold.

Jamie Foxx, nominated in the best actor category for his role as Ray Charles in Ray, will be up against the highly regarded Don Cheadle from Hotel Rwanda. And for best supporting actor, Foxx, as the righteous cabbie in Collateral, will go head to head with beloved veteran Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby.

Their nominations - and those of Anglo-African Sophie Okonedo as best supporting actress for Hotel Rwanda and Colombian Catalina Sandino Moreno as best actress for Maria Full of Grace - offer the first chance for actors of color to sweep the performing categories of the Academy Awards.

The films themselves have multi-cultural dimensions.

With that musical sizzler of a biopic, Ray, nominated for six awards, including best picture; Hotel Rwanda, an emotionally engulfing drama about genocide in Africa, nominated in three categories; and Tupac: Resurrection, the story of the late rap star, nominated for best documentary, many see the 77th Academy Awards as sending a message that insular Hollywood is beginning to look more like America.

"What it means from Ground Zero here in Hollywood is that studios will take more chances on telling stories about African-Americans and then marketing them to everyone," said Kevin Rodney Sullivan, the African-American director of the 2004 hit Barbershop 2, which grossed $65 million in the U.S. on a mere $18 million budget.

Yesterday's nominations included The Aviator, which received 11; Finding Neverland and Million Dollar Baby followed with 7. There was the usual sprinkling of surprises, such as Clint Eastwood getting a best actor nomination for Million Dollar Baby over Paul Giamatti (Sideways) and Javier Bardem (The Sea Inside).But by and large, favorites like lead actor Leonardo Di Caprio and director Martin Scorsese for The Aviator and Hilary Swank, the star of Million Dollar Baby, easily found their places on the list.

The six nominations for Ray may loom larger than any of them for adding diversity to an often white-bread awards group.

"It is a historic moment," said Donald Bogle, author of Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood.

"I want to see this open up awards for other talented African-Americans - directors, writers and so on. And I hope it will persuade the studios to take more chances on all kinds of African-American filmmaking."

Some progress has been made. In Dreamwork's summer hit, Collateral , which starred Tom Cruise, Foxx's role as a cabbie originally was written for a New York Jew. Director Michael Mann changed this key part to that of a Los Angeles black man because he thought Foxx would bring rippling undercurrents to the character.

As written, the role "might have been played by Woody Allen - it was a cliched, repressed Jewish character with a cliched, complaining Jewish mother," Mann said.

"Jamie was the best Max I could think of because he was not Max in life - I knew he'd fill Max's repression with all this contained energy. And his casting punctured a stereotype on the other side: That if you're African-American you're wired into the gangster life."

But other industry observers say the playing field will not be level until the ranks of studio executives, directors, actors and writers open wide for more black talents.

When director Sullivan filmed Terry McMillan's best seller How Stella Got Her Groove Back in 1998, it was an immediate box-office success. Because it told a universal story of a professional woman recharging her sexual and emotional life with a handsome man half her age, even the hard-nosed trade paper Variety dubbed it "an ideal girls-night-out attraction, as well as sure-fire date fare."

But 20th Century Fox never made any attempt to sell it across the board as a woman's film or distribute it to theaters outside urban markets, Sullivan said.

His next project was different: "By the time I did Barbershop 2, Barbershop had done well enough that the studio [MGM] was aggressive about marketing it to everyone."

Sullivan now is filming Guess Who - a remake of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, the Sidney Poitier chestnut from 1967. Only this time, Bernie Mac stars in the Spencer Tracy role as the father of the bride and a white teen idol, Ashton Kutcher, plays his prospective son-in-law.

The film's producing company, Regency, has committed to marketing and distributing it all over the world, Sullivan said. "We have been testing it with primarily white audiences in an incredibly aggressive, mainstream way. And the focus groups are talking about it not as a black movie, but as a story being told for them."

The value of the Oscars may become clear only over the arc of a career, said Bogle, the premier historian of African-American film. He points to the 2002 Academy Awards at which Denzel Washington and Halle Berry both won top acting honors.

"Denzel Washington was already on course," he said. "What about Halle Berry? She did Catwoman, which she never should have done. But what is she being offered?"

To director Ron Shelton, whose White Men Can't Jump catapulted Wesley Snipes into mainstream stardom, the real change won't come until there are top black executives at studios. "All this black talent - and there's nobody in the power and decision-making positions?" he said. "It shocks me. The movie industry makes the National Football League look good - at least there are some black executives and former players in positions of prominence."

Still, films with predominantly African-American casts instead of mixed casts like Collateral continue to slam into roadblocks because they haven't drawn huge audiences in the foreign markets where studios make much of their profit. Executives routinely refer to a "BPB" - a "black people's budget" - that could be $20 million less than a "normal" budget because of overseas sales.

But Oscar recognition may encourage the more adventurous white directors to keep taking rewarding risks with casting.

For last year's Twisted, director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) was uncharacteristically hesitant to cast an African-American as an obsessive killer for fear of rousing memories of the O.J. Simpson trial. But Samuel L. Jackson himself went after the role, asking, "Are you going to deny me the right to play a villain?"

Kaufman said that now "the public perceives that this kind of casting gives your property more strength - and by opening yourself up to African-Americans you often get to work with better actors."