You might expect black Americans in the film industry to be jubilant after the Academy Awards nominations. For the first time in 30 years and only the second time in Academy Award history, three of the 10 acting nominees in lead roles are black: Halle Berry in Monster's Ball, Will Smith in Ali and Denzel Washington in Training Day.
But instead of drawing cheers from those who have been fighting for greater black representation at all levels of the entertainment industry, the situation is raising concerns that many people will conclude that the problem has been solved.
"That's a real fear here," said Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "People asked me the other day, "Is this progress or a net gain?' And I said, "It's progress, but it's no net gain.' "
Although actors tend to draw most of the attention, those concerned with black representation in films say the dearth of black directors, producers, writers and behind-the-scenes workers is just as important. And most troubling, they say, is the lack of black studio and network executives, who would have the power to help change the face of the industry.
The numbers tell the story: Until Sidney Poitier won the Oscar for best actor in 1963 for Lilies of the Field, no black actor or actress had ever won an Oscar for a lead role. (Hattie McDaniel won a supporting actress award for Gone With the Wind in 1939.) And in the 38 Academy Award ceremonies since Poitier's breakthrough, no other black actor or actress has won for a lead role. Despite 780 total acting nominations and 152 winners since Poitier's Oscar, only four of those winners have been black, and all were recognized for supporting roles: Louis Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Washington in Glory (1989), Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost (1990) and Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire (1996).
It does raise a question, Mfume said: "What's going on here?"
Many of those concerned also are worried that any complaints at such a moment could lead to a backlash: "Can nothing satisfy them?" And Mfume and others began their comments on the Oscars with expressions of happiness over the recognition black actors are receiving this year.
"As a voting member of the academy, I am happy to see this work recognized," said Suzanne de Passe, a veteran television and film producer. "All of the artists involved are clearly most deserving of their nomination."
This echoes the opinion widely expressed around Hollywood by executives, producers and filmmakers since the nominations were announced: that this year should be viewed as a positive moment and a cause for some celebration.
"But it doesn't mean that the problem is solved," de Passe said. The worry is that with three lead acting nominees and a special Oscar to be presented to Poitier, as well as another Oscar winner, Goldberg, acting as MC of the ceremonies tonight, the event will become more of a celebration of achievements than an examination of roadblocks yet to be removed.
"It's promising, but the proof is in the pudding," said Darnell Hunt, director of the Center for African-American Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Will this turn out to be more of a symbolic gesture than an indication that things are fundamentally changed?"
Berry, who won a Screen Actors Guild Award earlier this month for her role as the wife of a condemned man in Monster's Ball, said she took the part primarily to demonstrate her own acting range. But she would like to see her Oscar nomination open doors for other black performers.
"That was one of the reasons I did this," she said in a telephone interview from London, where she is working on the new James Bond movie. "When people see you in a new light, maybe it will expand the opportunities."
De Passe added that the nominations were only a step. "Obviously, it's better than nothing; it's better than two nominations," she said. "But the fact is we have an inherent problem, and it goes well beyond who gets nominated. It goes to which projects get made and who gets hired."
The last time three black actors were nominated for lead roles in the same year was 1972: Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson for Sounder and Diana Ross for Lady Sings the Blues.
None of them won.
In 18 of the 38 years since Poitier's award, there were no black acting nominees, including four years in the past decade.
This history has resulted in considerable attention on this year's Oscar race, much of it focused on whether Washington, nominated for the third time as a lead actor, will take home the award for playing a shrewd and despicable cop in Training Day. He had previously been nominated for his lead performances in Malcolm X (1992) and The Hurricane (1999).
His stiffest competition is expected to come from Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, who won the Oscar last year for Gladiator and took home this year's Golden Globe for his Beautiful Mind performance.
Although Crowe is still widely seen as a narrow favorite, supporters of Washington, including the actress Julia Roberts and the actor and director Spike Lee, were quoted speaking on his behalf in a recent article in Newsweek.
"Many things have changed in this industry," Poitier told the magazine. "But many things have remained the same, and it's incredibly disheartening."
A spokesman for Washington said he was in Toronto this week, too busy with his first directorial effort to be interviewed. But in the Newsweek article, Washington was disinclined to give the three nominations much weight.
"To say that these nominations mean that African-Americans are now getting the recognition they deserve is to give a lot of power to people who don't have it," he said. "Three nominations means three nominations _ nothing more or nothing less for black actors."
Some blame audiences for an unwillingness to accept blacks in a wide array of Hollywood roles. Others mention a paucity of black Oscar voters or the reluctance of studio executives to broaden the concept of who is right for a role.
"I don't think there is some racist plot in the minds of the electors, who once they get their ballots, sit down and seek to make a racist decision," Mfume said. "It's more complicated than that. What is taking place is a sense of familiarity, of comfort that some people have with the people they know or who they have seen in the ranks."
He pointed to this year's supporting-actor nominations. Two actors from Ali are in serious contention: Jon Voight as the sports commentator Howard Cosell and Jamie Foxx as Bundini Brown, Muhammad Ali's troubled friend. Taking nothing away from Voight, Mfume said, he considered Foxx's the more difficult role and the finer performance. Yet only Voight is among this year's nominees.
Was Foxx omitted because of racism? No, Mfume said.
"We all feel comfortable with Mr. Voight, because of all of the great films he has given us," Mfume said. "In the case of Jamie Foxx, he came out of comedy and is not thought of by a lot of people for his dramatic skills. It's just part of our own human frailty."
As with most Oscar arguments, of course, opposing examples can be found. There are black actors, like Gooding, who have won the award without having the long careers to which Mfume referred. But that just shows that the real answer is complex, he said.
Damien Bona, co-author of Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards (Ballantine Books, 1986) and author of its just-published sequel, Inside Oscar 2 (Ballantine Books), said the presence of three black actors among the major nominees this year probably had little or nothing to do with actual progress in the fight for greater diversity in Hollywood.
"It just so happened that there were three really good performances by black actors in high-profile movies last year," Bona said. "And it comes in the same year that the academy is honoring Sidney Poitier. It's just a coincidence."
Hollywood executives said the lack of diversity in the film industry did not always stem from producers' prejudices but from the ticket-buying habits of audiences. Whenever a black actor like Smith or Washington emerges as an audience favorite, he is able to command the same stratospheric salaries as white actors.
But the problem, others retort, is that black actors have fewer roles to choose from and less diversity in the parts they are offered. These circumstances, they said, are the result of fewer roles that are written expressly for black characters and of some filmmakers' persistent reluctance to consider blacks for roles that are essentially race neutral.
Black actors at the top of the pyramid, like Washington, can often win some of these race-neutral parts. His current role in John Q., for instance, was not written as a black part, and even his nominated lead in Training Day could arguably have been played by a white actor.
The problem, many say, is that even when black actors beat the odds and win good, meaty roles, the industry's biggest honors are still reserved, in disproportionate numbers, for whites.
That perception was one of the seeds behind the NAACP's creation of the Image Awards 33 years ago, said de Passe, who was the Image Awards' executive producer for the past two years.
"We work in an industry where we take very seriously being recognized by our peers for our work," she said. "I have seen up close the fact that we need the Image Awards because there are so many people of color doing wonderful work that, if not for the Image Awards, would not be recognized."
Complaints about the dearth of black acting nominees are nothing new. After Poitier's victory, many expected a steady stream of black nominees, but there were only two more blacks nominated for acting in the 1960s. And for six years, from 1975 through 1980, there were no black acting nominees at all. Then protests were followed by promises.
"That has been the cycle for a long time now," Hunt of UCLA said. "Pressure is put on. There are some small concessions. We see some symbolic victories. The pressure is removed, and everybody goes back to business as usual. We start the whole cycle over again."
The most recent clash involving blacks and the Oscars began in 1995 after a People magazine cover story titled "Hollywood Blackout" pointed out that only one of that year's 166 Oscar nominees was black: the director Diane Houston, nominated for a short film. She lost.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson and others led protests, which were repeated two years later, when only a handful of blacks were nominated.
Most of the pressure that black leaders have directed recently at the entertainment industry has focused on television, which has left movie industry executives _ for the past three years, at least _ blissfully off the hot seat. But the attention sure to be drawn by the three lead actor nominees this year is likely to put them back on it.
"Almost 90 years after D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation and 70 years after the advent of sound movies," Mfume said, "we're still at the same point, asking the same questions. Why are so many roles and so many individuals overlooked by the academy?"