Eye on the Oscars: Talent Race

When Denzel Washington and Halle Berry made history by winning 2001′s top two acting honors for their respective turns in “Training Day” and “Monster’s Ball,” it appeared the floodgates had opened for racial minorities at the Oscars.

The following year, only two minority thesps, Salma Hayek (“Frida”) and Queen Latifah (“Chicago”), were nominated, with neither winning. Still, every subsequent Academy Awards featured at least one minority actor or actress in the Oscar hunt, with several notable winners including Jamie Foxx for “Ray” and Forest Whitaker for “The Last King of Scotland.”

Then came this past Oscar ceremony, which delivered not a single Acad acting nominee of color.

Were the past Oscars an anomaly or a sign of things to come? WME agent Charles King is concerned, citing the ever-shrinking studio slate as the biggest culprit for the dearth of meaty roles filled by thesps of color.

“The entire film marketplace is changing,” says King, who reps Tyler Perry and “Pariah” writer-director Dee Rees. “Studios are focused on content that speaks to a large international demographic and will have significant appeal in that marketplace. With fewer greenlights, movies that have a more multiethnic perspective have been hit more adversely than others.”

While there have been jobs in a general sense for minorities — a 2008 SAG report says 27.5% of roles are filled by actors of color — the Oscars underscore how rare it is for actors of color to get substantial roles.

Hopes for Latin-American and Asian-American performers this kudo season are again bleak. There is a strong chance for at least one African-American acting nom, particularly among “The Help” co-stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, and Focus Features thinks it has an outside shot at garnering some Oscar love for its late-December bow “Pariah,” a Sundance darling about a Brooklyn teen struggling to come out as a lesbian. But it’s not exactly an overflow of contenders.

Though the awards season is early, no other films with prominent minority roles have yet emerged as possible contenders in the acting heats.

“It’s a rarity,” says Chris Columbus, producer on DreamWorks’ Mississippi-set period drama “The Help,” of weighty films toplined by non-white thesps. “Unfortunately, we’re in a world where there aren’t a lot of great roles for African-American actresses.”

Two years ago, a pair of thesps — Morgan Freeman (“Invictus”) and Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”) — competed in the lead actor and actress categories, while Mo’Nique landed the supporting actress trophy for her role as an abusive mother in “Precious.” But perhaps tellingly, of those two films, only the Clint Eastwood-helmed “Invictus” came out of the studio system. By contrast, “Precious” only made it to the bigscreen thanks to angel investors Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness and the backing of exec producers Oprah Winfrey and Perry.

Despite the $64 million worldwide haul for the low-budget “Precious,” corporate-owned studios have become increasingly loath to finance minority-themed dramas — the preferred genre of Academy voters.

“You would have thought that based on the success of ‘Precious,’ there would have been other films like that,” notes King. “But there haven’t been many.”

Columbus and writer-helmer Tate Taylor shopped around a script for bestseller “The Help,” which delves into the rarely seen world of black maids in the South during the civil- rights movement, to a number of studios and production companies, all of which passed.

“It really took the belief of Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider at DreamWorks who said, ‘Yeah, we’ll support this picture,’ ” recalls Columbus. “They took a tremendous leap of faith.”

Though the film was a bonafide box office hit domestically and thus far internationally, “The Help” courted criticism for once again relegating black actresses to maids quarters. (Meanwhile, Sidibe followed up her “Precious” turn by playing a maid in the studio actioner “Tower Heist.”)

Winfrey, who nabbed an Oscar nomination for her supporting turn in Spielberg’s “The Color Purple,” sees the glass as half-full when it comes to minority representation in film.

“I choose not to dwell on the negative; I choose to dwell on what can be,” says Winfrey, who is being honored by the Academy this year with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

“I’m really excited to see what will happen with ‘The Help.’ Even if nothing happens with ‘The Help’ with the Academy, I think that the fact that ‘The Help’ exists is fantastic. It opens up the opportunities for other people who are like, ‘Hey, people will look at films that have dramatic impact and that involve black women and black characters.’ I choose to stay in the realm of what is possible and the doors that have been opened and not lament what isn’t happening.”

Eye on the Oscars: Talent Race
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