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Originally published Thursday, December 21, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Minority films, actors could steal the show at the Oscars

The world is opening up, and it's taking Hollywood with it. Almost a year after the racially tinged "Crash" scored a best-picture upset...

Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD — The world is opening up, and it's taking Hollywood with it.

Almost a year after the racially tinged "Crash" scored a best-picture upset at the Academy Awards, deep explorations of nonwhite cultures have dominated the silver screen as have ethnic performers who have delivered penetrating, emotional portrayals.

It's an expanding vision of storytelling that not only has taken audiences to Uganda, Morocco, South Africa, Spain, Japan and beyond, but also into areas of minority American culture.

Robyn Slovo, one of the producers of the fact-based South African drama "Catch a Fire," says that Hollywood in the past few years "has shown a much greater interest in the larger world. There is much more global awareness, and people are really interested in stories outside of the West."

Many of those stories have been among the industry's best told, earning heavy buzz as potential Oscar contenders for the films and the minority actors in them. All of which could turn the upcoming Oscars into more than just a tribute to film artistry, transforming it instead into a festival of multiculturalism.

"The time has finally come," said Jarvee Hutcherson, head of the Multicultural Motion Picture Association. "This happens to be a year where people are appreciating films that spotlight diversity, and they're embracing the concept of diversity more."

This expanding of boundaries has led to meatier roles for minority actors and actresses, said Stephanie Allain, one of the key forces behind 2005's "Hustle & Flow," which scored a best-actor nomination for Terrence Howard.

"More minority actors have gotten more opportunities for better roles," Allain said. "Now there are all of these contenders across the board. There hasn't been that much progress with minorities behind the camera, but actors have had the longest history in Hollywood of trying to get to the top. Now it's paying off."

Much of the excitement has surrounded seasoned actors (Forest Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland," Penélope Cruz in "Volver") as well as newcomers (Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi of "Babel," Jennifer Hudson of "Dreamgirls" and Rudy Youngblood of "Apocalypto").

Films with large foreign or minority casts that are strong best-picture contenders include "Babel," "Volver," Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" and Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima."

"Dreamgirls," which opens Monday, is already considered a front-runner for several nominations, with buzz surrounding most of its cast — Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Anika Noni Rose. Hudson, a former "American Idol" contestant, is considered almost a sure bet to secure a best-supporting-actress nomination.

"Half Nelson," an independent film about a relationship between an inner-city teacher (Ryan Gosling) and his student (Shareeka Epps), could also emerge from the pack to become an Oscar runner. It received several Independent Spirit Award nominations last month.

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Favorites in the actress race include Cruz as a strong-willed woman in Madrid in "Volver." The best-actor arena has several minority contenders — Whitaker as the dictator Idi Amin; Derek Luke as a rebel fighter in "Catch a Fire"; Will Smith as a struggling single father in "The Pursuit of Happyness"; and Michael Peña as a New York policeman in "World Trade Center."

The supporting-actor race could feature Freddy Rodriguez and Laurence Fishburne as hotel kitchen workers in "Bobby" and Djimon Hounsou as a fisherman who joins forces with a diamond smuggler in "Blood Diamond."

Of course, the widening of the field when it comes to minorities could also lead to disappointment.

Over his long career, Whitaker failed to win a nomination for "The Color of Money," "The Crying Game," "Bird" and others. And some insiders are still grumbling about Don Cheadle being overlooked for a supporting-actor nomination as the murderous hood Mouse in 1995's "Devil in a Blue Dress."

Filmmaker Reginald Hudlin, now BET entertainment president, says the Academy Awards can no longer look the other way when it comes to the excellence of minority performers.

"Black actors and actresses are operating at such a high level now that they cannot be denied," he said.

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