Sun, 06 Mar 2005

From: AFP

Black Oscar winners highlight a changing tide in Hollywood

Marc Lavine, Agence France-Presse, Hollywood, California

The Oscar triumphs by black actors Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman at Sunday's Academy Awards indicate that Hollywood's decades-old race barrier could finally be crumbling.

Foxx, 37, won the best actor award for his stunning portrayal of soul legend Ray Charles in "Ray," while Freeman picked up the best supporting actor trophy for his role as a grizzled ex-boxer in "Million Dollar Baby."

Only once before have two black actors walked off with Oscar statuettes in the same year -- in 2002, when Halle Berry became the first black woman to win best actress and Denzel Washington won best actor.

This year's double honors came in a year where a record number of five acting nominations went to black performers, including two to Foxx, who also won a best supporting actor nod for his role in the thriller "Collateral."

"It shows Hollywood is continuing to make history," veteran movie star Freeman said backstage after receiving his award.

"Things change. Life goes on. They never stay the same. We are evolving with the rest of the world," he said of the African- American presence at this year's show.

Foxx, only the third black man ever to win the best actor statuette, said Berry and Washington's Oscar triumphs had inspired him, and he hoped that his victory would also motivate young African-Americans.

"It gave me that inspiration to say 'Hey, I could do my thing, too.' So it's important," he told reporters.

"In our music, in our everyday life, in our community, (there are) so many negative things. Why not have something positive and then stamp it with blackness.

"And it's not to say that we're excluding everybody and this is (a) black thing, and we're taking over. We just want to be included into the pot," Foxx said.

This year's two other black nominees, Don Cheadle, nominated as best actor for the genocide drama "Hotel Rwanda," and his co- star, best supporting actress nominee Sophie Okonedo of Britain, went home empty handed.

The first black person to win an Academy Award was Hattie McDaniel, who took home the best supporting actress statuette for 1939's "Gone With the Wind."

Sidney Poitier's best actor win for 1964's "Lillies of the Valley" made him the first black person to receive a leading actor award, a feat that was not repeated until Berry and Washington's triumphs 38 years later.

Foxx and Freeman's wins on Sunday bring to 10 the total number of black actors who have won cinema's top awards.

For years black actors were overlooked by Hollywood awards juries and relegated to more minor or comedic roles.

"For the longest time, it seems that black actors were just in comic roles. That was a terrible limitation," said University of California Berkeley film studies professor Linda Williams.

That appeared to change to some extent this year.

"Clearly what happened this year is that there were a lot of black actors who were given the opportunity to play prominent roles," said University of Southern California film and ethnicity professor Todd Boyd.

But, he said, the true test of whether the race barrier is finally coming down will be "whether or not Hollywood will openly cast black actors in roles that may not specifically be written for black actors."

The irreverent host of the 77th annual Academy Awards, black comedian Chris Rock, pulled no punches when asked how he felt about all the "color" in Hollywood's Kodak Theatre on Sunday.

"It's always good to see some color in the room that don't have mops," he shot back.