Black Hollywood has been keeping a secret. For decades, African-Americans had been so consistently overlooked by the Academy Awards that a private group began sponsoring the "Black Oscars." Every year, on the night before the actual Oscars, members of the community--including James Earl Jones, Whitney Houston, Samuel L. Jackson and Will Smith--gather at a Beverly Hills hotel to honor their own. "Everyone has on their tuxes, and you see all these people you want to work with who are cheering you on," says Malcolm D. Lee, director of "Undercover Brother" and cousin of Spike Lee. "It's a great feeling, and intimate--nice."
But on March 24, 2002, Halle Berry crossed the stage at the Kodak Theatre to become the first African-American woman to win an Oscar for best actress. (She also set the record for most tears shed during an acceptance speech.) Minutes later, Denzel Washington took the best-actor award, the first black man to do so in 38 years. It was, by any measure, historic. Since 2002, 11 black actors have earned Oscar nominations. Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman have both won, and at least one black actor has been nominated every year. This year a record-breaking five--Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith and Djimon Hounsou--will be walking the red carpet on Feb. 25. "I certainly always hoped I'd see this day," says Sidney Poitier, the first African-American man to win best actor. "I would have thought it would have occurred sooner."
Yet breaking the color barrier hasn't exactly been met with unmitigated joy in black Hollywood. The decades of exclusion have left a scar of skepticism. "I'm pleased all this is happening, but I hope and pray it's not just a phase," says Louis Gossett Jr., who won the 1982 best-supporting-actor Oscar for "An Officer and a Gentleman"--and never got another role of that stature. History is peppered with bursts of high-profile work for black actors that blazed out just as fast. Angela Bassett couldn't find work for a year after being nominated for "What's Love Got to Do With It." In the early '70s, Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson and Diahann Carroll all earned best-actress nominations--and then no African-American woman was nominated in that category again for more than a decade. Even Washington questions the long-term impact of his own win. After Foxx won the 2004 best-actor Oscar, Washington told NEWSWEEK, "Who knows what it means for the future? I think we have to take it for just what it is--African-Americans winning awards. Beyond that, we have to wait and see."
What's most startling is that the 2002 Oscars have left a bitter aftertaste because of the kinds of roles that scored Washington and Berry their statues. He played a corrupt cop in "Training Day"; she starred as a woman who falls in love with a racist in "Monster's Ball." A segment within black Hollywood believes that white Academy voters reward black actors for roles that reinforce stereotypes--the angry black man, the noble slave, the sexualized black woman--rather than challenge them. "There's a sense that in order to be embraced by the white community, you probably did something that violates your integrity within the black community," says actress Kerry Washington, who stars opposite Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland." For black actors, succeeding in Hollywood comes at a price. "The playing field is not even, but I don't know that it's as evil as everyone likes to think it is," says Antoine Fuqua, who directed "Training Day." "People make films about what they experience, about what they know, and the film business was created by people that weren't African-American."
It would be unfair to leave the impression that African-Americans don't value the recognition and their increasing power within the industry. The success of Will Smith's "The Pursuit of Happyness"--a serious drama that has grossed more than $200 million worldwide and earned him his second Oscar nomination--is a milestone. "That movie is a story about determination and the American Dream," Lee says. "And it has nothing to do with being black." No one doubts that there's more, and better, work available now for actors of color than at any time in American history. In addition to the five black actors nominated this year, there's a Japanese actress and a Mexican actress, plus one Latino director. That's not altruism--it's business. The majority of theatrical revenue on studio films now comes from foreign box office, not domestic. And young audiences--the movie industry's bread and butter--care much less about race than their parents do. "We read trend reports that high-school and junior-high kids are much more comfortable in a multiracial world," says Stacey Snider, CEO of DreamWorks, which released "Dreamgirls." "That has to have an impact, not just on music and fashion, but on movies as well."
But rewriting history isn't easy. Actresses still haven't benefited much from Berry's win--no black woman has been nominated for best actress since she won. "We still don't have a female African-American superstar," says black-film historian Donald Bogle. "There's not even a female equivalent for Samuel L. Jackson or Morgan Freeman." The next generation of men, how-ever, has flourished. Five men have gotten lead Oscar nods since 2002. "Ten years ago Denzel was the only black actor who could get a lead in a quality movie," says John Singleton, who directed the landmark film "Boyz n the Hood." "Now, actors like Terrence Howard can get an Oscar nod with their first starring role." That change, Singleton says, will not be undone. "There's no going back to the back of the bus." He may be right. Perhaps the biggest indicator that the world has changed is that the Black Oscars have been canceled. After being a necessity for more than 25 years, they have succeeded by becoming redundant. "We only had the event to acknowledge those who weren't being acknowledged," says a member of the (secretive) Friends of the Black Oscars board. That's no longer the case. "This year, the Black Oscars will be at the Kodak."