The Academy Awards or "Oscars" are Hollywood's top annual honors; but in recent years, critics have noted that actors and filmmakers of color are rarely even nominated for the awards. This year, however, three African-Americans are among the 10 contenders in the lead acting categories the first time that's happened in three decades.
Will Smith earns his first-ever best actor nomination for his vivid performance as boxing champion Muhammad Ali in Ali .
His portrayal of a dirty cop in Training Day, brings Denzel Washington the fifth Oscar nomination of his career and his third in the best actor category.
Halle Berry is a first-time best actress nominee for Monster's Ball, in which she plays a widow dealing with tragedy, unexpected love and racial prejudice.
It's been three decades since so many African-Americans were nominated in the lead acting categories in the same year. In 1972, Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson earned nods for Sounder and Diana Ross was nominated for Lady Sings The Blues. Motion Picture Academy voters who choose the nominees and winners have faced accusations of racial prejudice, but Will Smith says the relative lack of minority nominees should come as no surprise.
"Put it like this," he says, " If you go to a French film festival, French films are going to be nominated and French films are going to win. If you go to a Chinese film festival, Chinese actors are going to be nominated and Chinese films are going to win. If you come to the United States and you're talking about the Oscars, the Academy is made of the majority white Americans, so for the most part, white American films are going to be nominated and white actors are going to win."
Denzel Washington doubts that this year's nominations indicate Academy voters are responding to the charges of racism.
"I think in this case everybody voted for the people they thought were the best and it happens to be three African-Americans," he says. " I don't put any particular spin on it other than that. It may suggest that there are better roles for African-Americans also, but I think it would be dangerous for them to say 'Let's start picking people because they're African-American or this or that.' I think it starts with opportunities to act."
"I'm not one whose name has been mentioned with Oscar ever before," says Halle Berry, "So I'm trying to keep that all in perspective."
Ms. Berry says her own life experience mirrors some of the prejudice her Monster's Ball character confronts and she calls the nominations "a huge step in the right direction."
"I don't know how it will transform the industry, but what I do know is it will hopefully instill hope in other people of color and hope that maybe one day they will be there," she says. "I think that's always a good way to start to change the future: having people feel like they can really be a part of the industry in a real way."
Will Smith says he's always felt the Oscars are supposed to be a gauge of excellence that is color-blind.
"In my mind you can't allow an award to be the validation of your work. I think that Halle's, Denzel's, and my work was good work this year," he says. "I think we all just want to be judged as human beings, period."
Industry executives have long maintained that their films simply mirror society; and Motion Picture Academy president Frank Pierson believes this year's nominations reflect changes beyond the studio gates.
"I remember because I've been around for 45 years now, that when you walked on a Hollywood set, as was true in most businesses everywyere, you would not see a black, you would not see a hispanic, you would not see a woman," Mr. Pierson says. "Now it would be rare not to see a fully integrated film crew. I think it reflects a change in our society, which I certainly welcome as a good healthy sign; but it's also a little coincidental that there just happened to be three brilliantly-written parts in the hands of three brilliand directors that could lead these three actors to be up there. Are they black" Sure, they're black, but that's not the important thing," he says. "The ultimate thing is they are great actors and they gave great performances."
Frank Pierson is president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The 74th annual Academy Awards are presented in a global telecast on March 24.