History in the breaking?

African-American thesps on verge of kudos precedent

While the awards season chatter has become obsessive on the topic of the wide-open race, another subject — with far greater history-making import — has thus far gone little noticed.

More than the large field of contending films, the 2002 Oscar derby may be most notable for the real prospect that, for the first time ever, two black thesps, may walk the Kodak Theater’s red carpet as best actor nominees: Denzel Washington (“Training Day”) and Will Smith (“Ali”), both of whom are already nominated for Golden Globes.

Washington, a past winner for supporting thesp (“Glory”), has already gotten off to a solid start with an actor win at the new AFI Awards, now the kudos season’s official kickoff.

And then there’s Halle Berry, who’s getting raves for her perf in “Monster’s Ball.”

“If all three are nominated for Oscars,” notes National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People president-CEO Kweisi Mfume, “that would be quite a breakthrough, and if Halle and one of the two men won, that would really say something about the advances in this country.”

A historic double win for minority thesps would instantly become the Oscar headline, regardless of the outcome in any other category. A win, however, may not necessarily translate into better roles, especially in Berry’s case.

Though 15 African-American and Latino actresses have been Oscar nominated in lead and supporting roles (two won: “Gone With the Wind’s” Hattie McDaniel and “Ghost’s” Whoopi Goldberg), only Goldberg has been nominated twice, for “Ghost” and “The Color Purple.”

The disturbing inability for these leading and supporting women to repeat is just one measure, a tenpercenter suggests, of the lack of award-caliber roles.

There’s “a stampede,” as the agent terms it, if an Oscar-worthy role comes along for a white actress. “For black actresses, it’s close to a miracle if they’re able to land the kind of role that gets Oscar talk.”

An oft-cited example of an acclaimed artist who personifies the problem is Alfre Woodard, who hasn’t been Oscar-nominated since “Cross Creek” in 1983.

“To see Woodard, one of our best actresses, for all of three minutes in ‘K-PAX’ is painful,” says L.A. Weekly critic Ernest Hardy. “She should be having movies written for her, and she seems to have to settle now for the slightest roles, as if to remind us that she’s still around, when she should be dominant.”

Washington is another example of an actor whose talent is undeniable except, it seems, come Oscar time. Many feel the thesp was robbed in 2000 when controversy erupted over “The Hurricane.” Still, with nominations for “Malcolm X” and “Cry Freedom,” Washington is getting the parts, if not the respect.

Far scarcer are memorable roles and Oscar attention for Latino and Asian-American actors. What confounds many observers is the seeming contradiction of the burgeoning Latino audience on one hand — the fastest-growing sector, according to studio marketers — and the extreme shortage of Latino stars they can look up to.

“You get beyond Edward James Olmos and Jimmy Smits,” says political commentator and author Earl Ofari Hutchinson, “and there are no stars with a track record. Among women, there’s maybe only Jennifer Lopez. A major star in any ethnic group pulls the others along, and it opens the eyes and ears of those at the studios who call the shots. Latinos have very little of that.”

Yet while seven Latino thesps have been invited to the Oscar ball (including, most recently, Rosie Perez for “Fearless” and Olmos for “Stand and Deliver”), only one Asian-American has ever been nominated: Pat Morita for 1984’s “The Karate Kid.”

In a curious twist, Asian-American nominees have been far outnumbered by Asian-born actors, including Mako (“The Sand Pebbles”) and Haing S. Ngor (“The Killing Fields”). “Asian-American actors not only have to compete with each other for roles, but with a whole group from overseas,” notes “Training Day” helmer Antoine Fuqua.

Hardy adds, regarding Asian-American thesps, “Although you don’t want to say that if you’re of a certain national origin you can only play those roles, because it’s in every actor’s nature to want to play anything. But it doesn’t take much effort to find actors, say a Japanese American, to play a Japanese character.”

For black actors, however, the 2002 race may be a watershed moment. As names are announced on the morning of Feb. 12, there will either be enormous praise in the African-American community or a feeling of being left on the sidelines once again.

Oscar’s select few

Only 15 African-American or Latino women have been nominated.

Hattie McDaniel, “GWTW,” 1939 (won)

Ethel Waters, “Pinky,” 1949

Dorothy Dandridge, “Carmen Jones,” 1954

Juanita Moore, “Imitation of Life,” 1959

Rita Moreno, “West Side Story,” 1961 (win)

Beah Richards, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” 1967

Diana Ross, “Lady Sings the Blues,” 1972

Cicely Tyson, “Sounder,” 1972

Diahann Carroll, “Claudine,” 1974

Alfre Woodard, “Cross Creek,” 1983

Whoopi Goldberg, “The Color Purple,” 1985; “Ghost,” 1990 (won)

Oprah Winfrey, “The Color Purple,” 1985

Margaret Avery, “The Color Purple,” 1985

Angela Bassett, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” 1993

Rosie Perez, “Fearless,” 1993

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