Racial barriers still hold back Hollywood's black talent

Wed Feb 26, 2014 7:19am EST
 
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By Piya Sinha-Roy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won the best-acting Oscar categories and Sidney Poitier was honored with a lifetime achievement award in 2002, the night was a watershed for black actors in Hollywood.

Since then the debate about Hollywood diversity among the African American community has continued to ebb and flow, but one fact remains constant: nearly all black actors are still only being recognized by the Academy Awards for playing specifically black characters in film.

Four movies from 2013 have served to animate that conversation during Hollywood's awards season: "12 Years A Slave," "Lee Daniels' The Butler," "Fruitvale Station" and "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom." Only the first, Steve McQueen's historical drama, made it to the Oscars.

This year, three black actors will be vying for Oscars at the March 2 ceremony, and if "12 Years a Slave" wins best picture, it will be the first film by a black director to do so.

But as black films and actors are being celebrated by Hollywood, there is no clear indication that the industry has turned the corner on increasing roles not based on race.

That could be partly explained by the underrepresentation of black talent in senior positions in film studios and among the 6,000-plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who vote for the Oscars.

"When roles in otherwise mainstream movies go to black actors that aren't necessarily written for (them), I think that's a point when there will have been some profile change," said Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California and an expert on African American cinema and culture. "We are not there yet."

Seven of the nine best-picture nominees in contention for an Oscar this year, including large ensemble casts in "American Hustle" and "The Wolf of Wall Street," do not have any black actors in leading or supporting roles.   Continued...

 
Cast member Halle Berry (R) poses with co-star Morris Chestnut at the premiere of "The Call" in Los Angeles, California March 5, 2013. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni