LOS ANGELES – Halle Berry hopes this year's three Academy Award nominations for black actors will be a source of optimism for minorities. Denzel Washington just figures academy voters went for the actors they felt turned in the best performances.
And Will Smith jokes that win or lose, he's already made history: "The first rapper to be nominated for an Oscar. That is cool."
This year's awards present one of the best chances for a black to earn a lead-acting trophy since Sidney Poitier became the only black actor to do so, for 1963's Lilies of the Field.
Oscar nominations for Berry (Monster's Ball), Smith (Ali) and Washington (Training Day) mark the first time in 29 years that three blacks have competed in the lead-acting categories.
Best-actress may come down to Sissy Spacek for In the Bedroom and Berry, who won the lead-actress prize for Monster's Ball this month at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. The best-actor race seems to be a dead heat between Russell Crowe for A Beautiful Mind and Washington, a five-time nominee who won the supporting-actor Oscar for Glory.
In addition, two Oscar-winning black actors have major roles at the ceremony Sunday. Poitier receives an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. And Whoopi Goldberg, a supporting-actress winner for Ghost, is the show's host.
Only six blacks have won acting Oscars since the awards began in 1929, or 2.2 percent of the winners. The only previous year that produced three black nominees for best actor or actress was 1972: Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield for Sounder and Diana Ross for Lady Sings the Blues.
"When it happened in 1972, I bet you someone probably said this is a prelude of better things to come, and we found it hasn't happened again for almost 30 years," said Frank Smith Jr., acting board president of the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
Still, many in Hollywood view this year's nominations as a hint that choicer roles are opening up for blacks in an industry that once relegated minorities largely to comic or caricatured parts.
Of 39 nominations for blacks over the years, 31 have come since 1970, compared with eight in the preceding four decades.
"There's old Hollywood and new Hollywood. Old Hollywood was basically lily-white, with white actors in films generally to the exclusion of other races," said director John Singleton, whose Boyz N the Hood established him as the only black filmmaker ever nominated for best director. "New Hollywood seems to realize that to make a hit movie, you need to have a multiplicity of people represented.
"Because of that, American films are becoming more American in the sense that they look more like the whole of America looks."
As actors such as Washington, Smith and Berry find box-office success, some have been able to use their clout to get projects off the ground that showcase their talents in serious, potentially Oscar-worthy roles.
"I don't really know how it will transform the industry, but what I do know is that it will hopefully instill hope in other people of color," Berry said of this year's nominations.
Berry previously won an Emmy for the title role in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Dandridge, who rose to stardom amid Hollywood racism of the 1940s and 1950s, was the first black nominated for a lead-acting Oscar, for 1954's Carmen Jones.
Four years later, Poitier became the second, for The Defiant Ones.
Washington said he believes the quality of the performances alone resulted in this year's three nominations.
"It's not about race," he said. "This might suggest that they are doing us a favor because we are black."
The Oscar recognition, though, "might also suggest that there are better roles for African-Americans," Washington said.
Smith, who joined the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last year, said greater representation in that group is critical to Oscar success for blacks. The academy provides no demographic breakdown of its 5,700 voting members, but academy executives concede the percentage of minorities is far lower than in the general population.
"The academy is made up ... (mostly) of white Americans, so for the most part, white American films are going to be nominated and white American actors are going to win," said Smith, who urged more blacks to apply for membership.
"We all just want to be judged as human beings."