In bleak situations, incremental improvements can be mistaken for big time progress. So it goes with Hollywood's consistent inability to include actors of color.
Popular critical consensus suggests that we may have as many as four black Best Actor nominees: Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12 Years a Slave"), Idris Elba ("Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"), Forest Whitaker ("Lee Daniels' The Butler") and Michael B. Jordan ("Fruitvale Station"). Ejiofor is currently favored to win the category, where he'll probably be joined by the likes of Tom Hanks ("Captain Phillips"), Robert Redford ("All Is Lost") and Bruce Dern ("Nebraska").
That these men of color are even being discussed in awards blogger circles is certainly cause for celebration, because each of their films presents a perspective that doesn't get much play in Hollywood. But insofar as these four movies are important, they are also limited by their veracity. They're all based on true stories: "12 Years" tells the tale of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was captured and enslaved and wrote an autobiography by the same name; "Mandela" is self-explanatory; "Fruitvale Station" centers on the 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant III, a black man shot dead by a police officer in Oakland; "The Butler" draws its meat from the life of Eugene Allen, a black butler who worked for the White House for over three decades.
Put another way, these roles have to be played by black actors. Each of these men has more than earned the nominations they're expected to receive (now's a good time to pinch in some salt: awards bloggers love to shower performances with praise, but nominations are certainly not guaranteed), but the fact that they're generally only rewarded for roles that literally could not have been given to white actors is cause for concern.
"Generally only rewarded for roles that literally could not have been given to white actors" is not casual phrasing. A study of the roles that have earned black men Best Actor nominations reveals that this is a historical problem. Sidney Poitier won in 1963 for playing a black itinerant worker in "Lilies of the Field," a movie based on a novel by the same name. Jamie Foxx won in 2004 for playing Ray Charles in "Ray," and Forest Whitaker won in 2006 for playing Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland." The only black man to win Best Actor for a role that could have been played by a white actor is Denzel Washington, who won in 2001 for his turn as a LAPD detective in "Training Day."
That's one man over 85 years of Academy Awards. The situation isn't much better at the Golden Globes, where Morgan Freeman's performance as a chauffeur who triumphs over racism in "Driving Miss Daisy" joins the otherwise identical list of Best Actor winners. (Nor, it's worth noting, does the picture improve when including Best Actor nominees at the Oscars, a class that includes blacks playing "black roles" such as Will Smith in "Ali," Don Cheadle in "Hotel Rwanda," Terrence Howard in "Hustle & Flow," Freeman in "Invictus," Washington in "Malcom X," Laurence Fishburne in "What's Love Got to Do With It," etc.)
Jordan has discussed enjoying filming "Chronicle," which he describes as a win because the character was originally supposed to be a white Jewish man. "[With] the lack thereof of quality roles for African-American actors, I look for stuff like that," he said in an interview with HuffPost Entertainment. "I want the script that Ben Affleck or Leonardo DiCaprio couldn't do because of scheduling. I want that one. I want those types of roles."
Hollywood is even worse at including women of color in award-winning performances, (Halle Berry is the only black woman to ever win the Oscar for Best Actress, in a "Monster's Ball" role with a complex and controversial relationship with race), and this year's Emmys were a shockingly white-male affair. "12 Years," "The Butler," "Fruitvale" and "Mandela" all cleared an extra hurdle: they are are all independently financed films that were created without the interest or fiscal support of the major movie studios.
True equality in the Best Actor race doesn't mean only rewarding black men in roles white men could never play. Instead, we'll know when Hollywood casting directors and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences view people of color as deserving of equal opportunities to shine when a black man in the role of a fictional caring father, son, teacher, student, doctor, author or otherwise non-racially coded character is nominated for and wins Best Actor.
Until then, however, let's raise a glass to this year's class of outstanding performers, because maybe, just maybe their success in this year's awards rat race will jostle the shamefully whitewashed powers that be within the industry. Forgive me for not getting my hopes up.
Naomi Watts and Robin Wright star as two mothers who fall into sexual relationships with each other's sons. (Yep, it's real.)
When Vin Diesel isn't starring in "Fast and Furious" movies, he's playing Riddick.
A documentary about The Beatles' famed secretary.
Shane Salerno ("Savages") directs this documentary about the reclusive "Catcher in the Rye" author.
Jennifer Hudson stars as Nelson Mandela's wife Winnie in this new film, the first of two Mandela features set for release this year.
Director Luc Besson's mob comedy stars Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, because sometimes we're allowed to have nice things.
Billy Bob Thornton's first feature directorial effort since 2001's "Daddy and Them" stars Thornton himself, Kevin Bacon and Robert Duvall.
Chris Brown made a movie with Sawyer from "Lost." (Real.)
Hugh Jackman leads an all-star cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo) in this revenge drama from director Denis Villeneuve.
Sam Rockwell stars in this thriller, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Nicole Holofcener's romantic comedy features James Gandolfini's final role as a leading man. (Gandolfini has a supporting role in the upcoming film "Animal Rescue.") Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Toni Collette and Catherine Keener co-star.
Mark Ruffalo and Gwyneth Paltrow star in this dramedy about sex addiction. From Stuart Blumberg, an Oscar nominee for "The Kids Are All Right."
A controversial documentary about U.S. doctors who still perform third-trimester abortions.
Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti and Zac Efron star in this drama about the immediate aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Jonathan Groff stars in this new movie, which is based on a story by David Sedaris.
Ron Howard's Formula 1 drama casts Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl as, respectively, James Hunt and Niki Lauda, two of the sport's greatest competitors. The film, which is also due to bow at the Toronto International Film Festival, opens wide on Sept. 27.
Paula Patton stars in this rom-com about a flight attendant looking for love. Bonus: <strike>Seth Cohen</strike> Adam Brody as her outlandish confidant.
Tying up all the loose ends from part one.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut is a funny and poignant look at relationships in the age of instantaneous gratification. (Also, porn.) Tony Danza, Julianne Moore and a scene-stealing Scarlett Johansson all co-star.
Enter sandman: Metallica made a concert movie that's not a just a concert movie. Dane DeHaan stars.
Alfonso Cuaron's first film since 2006's "Children of Men" stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts lost in space. One of the year's must-see events.
Justin Timberlake takes on an evil Ben Affleck in this new thriller about online gambling. Brad Furman ("The Lincoln Lawyer") directs.
Tom Hanks stars as the title captain in this thriller from Paul Greengrass, which focuses on the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama. The film will debut at the New York Film Festival.
The best cast of the year? "Machete Kills" stars Danny Trejo, Sofia Vergara, Michelle Rodriguez, Cuba Gooding Jr., Demian Bichir, Amber Heard, Lady Gaga, Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen (as the President of the United States), because of course it does.
"Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes adapted this version of Shakespeare's tragic romance.
"Harry Potter" pals Alan Rickman and Rupert Grint reunite for this rock drama.
Daniel Radcliffe grows up. The erstwhile Harry Potter plays Allen Ginsberg in this Sundance Film Festival fave.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Julian Assange in this new film from Bill Condon ("The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 & 2," "Dreamgirls").
Diablo Cody's directorial debut look good, honest to blog.
No one is going to laugh at Chloe Moretz after this remake of Brian DePalma's horror classic debuts.
Stallone. Schwarzenegger. Prison break. See you at the theater.
Robert Redford stars as a man struggling to survive after a hole is torn into the hull of his ship. J.C. Chandor ("Margin Call") directs the film, which is expected to give the 76-year-old actor a good chance at an Oscar nomination in 2014.
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, a New York man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson and Alfre Woodard star in this new drama from "Shame" director Steve McQueen. The film is based on Northup's acclaimed memoir.
Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz go bad in Ridley Scott's "The Counselor," based on an original script by Cormac McCarthy. Yes, please.
An adaptation of the beloved young adult novel (from non-beloved author Orson Scott Card) stars Hailee Steinfeld, Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley and Harrison Ford.
An animated movie about turkeys, "from the Academy Award-winning producer of 'Shrek.'"
Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline star in this comedy, which looks like a mix of "The Hangover" and "Grumpy Old Men." Turtle from "Entourage" co-stars, at least for one scene.
Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson star in this romantic comedy-cum-time travel drama from "Love Actually" director Richard Curtis. The trailer will make you cry. (The film opens nationwide on Nov. 8.)
Naomi Watts stars as Princess Diana in this new biopic.
Think "Children of Men" mixed with "The Host." Kevin Macdonald, of "The Last King of Scotland" fame, directs.
The sequel to "Thor" looks better than its predecessor in lots of ways, not the least of which being that Tom Hiddleston's Loki is fully unhinged. Petition for Loki spinoff starts here.
A sequel to the 1999 film "The Best Man," which serves as further proof that the statute of limitations on part twos is infinite.
Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson star in this adaptation of Markus Zusak's acclaimed best-selling novel.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey star in Martin Scorsese's new film, which looks to do for bankers what "Goodfellas" did for mobsters. Expect Oscars and endlessly quotable dialogue.
Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt and Cobie Smulders star in this comedy about a man who fathered 533 children after making donations to a sperm bank.
Alexander Payne's latest film casts Bruce Dern and Will Forte as a father and son on a road trip. Expect to read a lot about this between now and the Academy Awards on March 2.
Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson and Mary J. Blige star in this new drama, directed by Kasi Lemmons.
Spike Lee's reinterpretation of Chan-wook Park's classic film stars Josh Brolin, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley and Elizabeth Olsen.
This story appears in Issue 72 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Oct. 25 in the iTunes App store.
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