When the glamorous and gifted of Hollywood gathered for the 74th Academy Awards Sunday night, they weren't only celebrating outstanding achievement in motion pictures, but a notable milestone for the awards themselves. For the first time in 29 years, three African Americans -- Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and Will Smith -- were nominees for the coveted best acting awards.
For these black actors -- Denzel Washington in "Training Day" and Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball" -- winning a golden statuette is not only monumental. It is historic. Sidney Poitier in 1963 became the first black actor ever to win the Oscar for best actor. No black actress had won the award – until Sunday night.
Before the ceremony, Berry said, "It will, hopefully, instill hope in other people of color. And it will help them dream that maybe one day, they can be there."
The nominations have unleashed feelings of pride, tempered by suspicions of prejudice.
Starting with Hattie McDaniel in 1939, only 39 performances by black actors have been considered worthy of Oscar nominations -- this out of 1,369 nominations in acting categories. And of these nominees, only six African-Americans had won before Sunday night.
"It begs the question, What is going on here?" said Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP. Since protesting the vile depiction of blacks in the 1915 film "Birth of a Nation," the civil rights organization has been pressing Hollywood for more accurate portrayals, for greater use of diverse talents.
Mfume continued, "There ought to be an obligation, I think, on behalf of the academy, to look at itself. I shouldn't be the police of the academy. They ought to police themselves and ask themselves, 'Is there something wrong with this picture?'"
It's a picture, critics contend, that fails to reflect the Technicolor complexity of the country Hollywood claims to mirror.
"The whole society has moved forward," said Darnell Hunt, director of African American Studies at UCLA. "In fact, society has moved forward to the point where the industry is no longer leading the society the way it might have been doing in 1963, when Sidney Poitier was nominated. And in many respects, you might argue the industry somewhat lags society."
Hollywood powers insist the industry is not a laggard and pointed to Sunday night's Oscars as proof: three black nominees, host Whoopi Goldberg, a special Oscar for Sidney Poitier.
"I think Hollywood is probably the least discriminatory of any enterprise in this country," said Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association. "If you can act and cause people to buy a ticket to see you in a theater, they want you. Talented, gifted people of all races, creeds and religions, and color are accepted in Hollywood."
Still, to many black denizens of Hollywood, this year's nominations felt like deja vu. Twenty-nine years ago, three African-Americans -- Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield and Diana Ross -- were best actor nominees. None of them won. It would be 10 more years before another black actor did win an Oscar: Louis Gossett, Jr. won Best Supporting Actor for "An Officer and a Gentleman."
Said he, "Today, you can't take that away... I'm not going to go backwardsm and I behaved in a just way. But after the Oscar, I got no work."
But Gossett is optimistic things are different this time: "And so there is a step, progressive step by step opening the door, or taking the door off the hinges now. And we need to continue to flood through that doorway and equalize ourselves in our industry and all the industries in America, obviously. But especially the powerful motion picture industry.
Observed Darnell Hunt, "Two, three years from now, if we have sustained inclusion of this sort, then we might say that, yeah, this was a turning point. But right now, I think it's a little too early."
The picture is murky industry-wide; not just the movies, but television, too, presents a paler reflection of America's colorful reality. But if, as the Oscar nominees suggest, the picture slowly is changing in front of the camera, take a look behind the camera.
"Behind the camera, it's a different story," said Paris Barclay, one of the top directors working in network television and one of the few African Americans. "I'm also the third vice president of the Directors' Guild, so I have access to all the numbers, and those numbers are worse in terms of directors, assistant directors, and particularly in terms of African-American women directors, Asian directors, and Latino directors. They're all under-represented in network television."
After the success of Flip Wilson, and "Roots" in the '70s, and again after the mega-hit "Cosby Show" in the '80s, blacks before and behind the camera thought the TV landscape - at least - would change. It didn't.
Two years ago, the NAACP called the networks to task for what it called "a virtual whitewash" in prime time and forced them, under threat of boycott, to agree to diversify. There's been modest improvement, the organization says. Too modest.
Said the NAACP's Mfume, "This is not blatant racism, where somebody sits down and says, 'Oh, we don't want anybody nominated.' It's far different from that, but just as devious, because of the outcome. And I think it's because of some extent of the insular nature of the industry."
Barclay explained, "It's really, really difficult to beat the club mentality in television. People want to hire who they want, and who they play golf with. That's just the way it goes."
That, it seems, is the way it goes in movies too.
"And you've heard this before: The people making the decisions on what movies get made are often predominantly white men," says Kasi Lemmons, an independent filmmaker. She wrote and directed the small, critically acclaimed 1997 film, "Eve's Bayou." She says black filmmakers have higher hurdles to jump to get financing from white studio executives: "They're like, 'Hmmm. Who's going to be the audience for that?' or 'Black movies don't sell foreign' or… 'We just don't see how this is going to make all its money back.'"
UCLA's Darnell Hunt monitors the movies and has authored a report on blacks on prime time TV. He said, "You need to incorporate people of color at every phase. I mean, in terms of writing, casting, production, and so forth. And until that happens, I think you're just going to see more of the same."
More of the same is unacceptable, said the NAACP's Mfume, who threatens, targeted boycotts remain an option: "If, as consumers of product, we are concerned that there's not enough fairness, equal opportunity and diversity, sometimes, at the end of the day, economic action becomes the only action that gets the attention of industries."
Ironically, economic forces might already be the agents of change. Will Smith and Denzel Washington, who already had five nominations and one Oscar for supporting actor -- both have proven to have major box office clout.
Said Barclay, "They're now where the studios are interested in them, because they will make money for them, whether they're black or not. They are money machines and, therefore, they're going to get those opportunities."
Denzel Washington has said, "It's really about getting roles. I don't think there's anything the academy can do and, as I said earlier, I think it would be dangerous for them to say, 'We'll start picking people because they're African-Americans or this and that. I think it starts, you know, with the opportunities to act."
And filmmaker Lemmons observed, "You know, we're living in a different world than when Mr. Poitier…won his Oscar, when he was the only one on the lot. There are just too many filmmakers coming up through the ranks. You can't stop it. They're gonna come into Hollywood, they're gonna find jobs, and the world's gonna change."
They say Hollywood is where dreams are made. Many there dream that future Academy Award class photos show a truer picture of America ... in all its diversity.