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Black actors’ reign at Oscars may not boost minority roles

By Anthony Breznican The Associated Press
Tuesday March 26, 2002

LOS ANGELES — Denzel Washington and Halle Berry made history with their Academy Award wins, but minority groups say diversity must extend beyond Hollywood’s glamour night — and include other groups such as Asians, Hispanics and American Indians. 

“What’s historic about equality? Historic for me will be when all people of color are represented and are capable of garnering these awards,” said Sonny Skyhawk, president of the advocacy group American Indians in Film. 

Skyhawk, an actor who’s appeared in “Young Guns II” and “Geronimo: An American Legend,” joined other show-business minority leaders Monday in saying the Oscars and entertainment industry in general was overdue for broader racial representation. 

Felix Sanchez, president of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, was optimistic about the significance of the black victories for others. 

“This is the new dynamic,” he said. “I think we are going to see more and more success stories for minorities ... I hope this means (studios) are going to tap more writers with diverse stories and cast more actors that represent the true face of American diversity.” 

Some minority Oscar winners include Japanese-born Miyoshi Umeki for her supporting role in 1957’s “Sayonara” and Cambodian native Haing S. Ngor in 1984’s “The Killing Fields.” Meanwhile, American Indian actor Graham Greene was nominated for his supporting role in 1990’s “Dances With Wolves.” 

Chris Wang, an agent with Toronto-based Asian Action Talents management company, said he wants more producers to keep an open mind about casting Asians in roles they might otherwise give to whites. 

“It’s going to take a long time for Asian actors to get those roles. It’s not going to change overnight,” he said. “But we’ve seen a lot of changes, and it’s getting a lot better for good performers in general.” 

The Academy Awards have honored Hispanics several times, with Mexican-born Anthony Quinn winning two supporting actor prizes in the 1950s for “Viva Zapata!” and “Lust for Life.” 

Last year, Puerto Rican Benicio Del Toro took home the supporting actor trophy for “Traffic,” and Rita Moreno, also Puerto Rican, received the supporting actress award in 1962 for “West Side Story.” 

This year, however, the Hispanic community lost a chance for an Oscar when Jennifer Connelly claimed the supporting actress award for playing Alicia Nash, the wife of delusional mathematician John Nash in best-picture winner “A Beautiful Mind.” 

The real woman she portrayed was born in El Salvador, while Connelly was not. 

“It’s unfortunate they portray a real person and the ethnicity is not included,” said Manny Alfaro, a New York stage performer and executive director of the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors. “It hurts us who are working, coming up the pipeline.” 

Some organizations say minorities will have power in front of the camera only when there is more minority representation behind the scenes as directors, writers and producers. 

Washington, who received a supporting award for 1989’s “Glory,” won this year’s Oscar for playing the flamboyantly corrupt cop in “Training Day,” becoming the first black to named best actor since Sidney Poitier for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field.” Now that a trail has been blazed for blacks, he suggested, other minority actors now must struggle for more significant roles. 

“I don’t recall seeing any Asian Americans, women or men, being recognized and not too many Latin Americans,” Washington said on NBC’s “Today” show. “So there is still lot of work (to be done.)” 

Washington and Berry became the first black duo to take the top-acting honors, and Berry’s win for “Monster’s Ball” made her the first black woman in history to claim the best actress award. 

Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, praised the Academy Awards but said more must be done to promote Hollywood diversity. 

“If this is a sign that Hollywood is finally ready to give opportunity and judge performance based on skill and not on skin color, then it is a good thing,” Mfume said. “However, if this proves to be a momentary flash in a long history of neglect, then Hollywood has failed to learn the real meaning of equality.” 

Other black actors predicted Berry’s and Washington’s wins could signal that studios are more comfortable giving prestige roles to minorities. 

“It’s one step at a time,” said former “L.A. Law” co-star Blair Underwood. “There’s no way that you can go back from the progress made tonight. That window has been opened.”