Notice something about the Oscar nominees announced on Tuesday? The list was awfully ... monochromatic.
This year marks the first time in 10 years that there have been no black acting nominees. Not since the 2001 Academy Awards have black actors been shut out of the Oscar race.
No one's suggesting that there should be racial quotas for the Oscars, nor are African-Americans the only under-represented minority among the nominees. Still, for the last decade, the Academy has recognized an explosion of black talent, and in numbers roughly proportional to the percentage of the U.S. population that's African-American. From 2002 to 2010, black stars earned 21 out of 180 acting nominations (that's 12 percent, about the same as their proportion among the general populace), and those nominations resulted in seven trophies for black performers. How does the Academy go from a tally like that down to zero?
In part, it's because the Academy favors a certain kind of movie (dramas, historical epics, biopics), and by and large, African-American actors were busy making other kinds of movies this year.
Look at the projects that the black movie stars who earned Oscar nominations during the 2000s released in 2010. Morgan Freeman and Forest Whitaker made action comedies ('Red' and 'Repo Men,' respectively).Queen Latifah and Jamie Foxx appeared in romantic comedies. (Both were in 'Valentine's Day,' and Latifah also had the lead in 'Just Wright.') Foxx made another comedy, 'Due Date.' Don Cheadle took a sidekick role in a superhero movie. Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique,Viola Davis and Terrence Howard took regular roles on TV series. Davis also took bit parts in 'Knight & Day' and 'Eat Pray Love,' both star vehicles for others. Taraji P. Henson took a bit part in 'Date Night' and played Jaden Smith's mom in the 'Karate Kid' remake. Eddie Murphy made another 'Shrek' cartoon. Denzel Washington made two blockbuster action hits, 'The Book of Eli' and 'Unstoppable.' And Will Smith, AWOL from the screen since 2008, apparently spent the year making sure his kids find success in the family business before they hit puberty. None of these releases is the sort of project that wins an actor an Oscar.
At least all these performers had plenty of work during the year. As the list above suggests, Hollywood likes casting African-Americans in action movies and comedies, or in supporting roles oppisite kids or white stars. Even after a decade of Academy Award nominations, however, Hollywood is still not in the mindset that African-American lives are also a rich source of Oscar-worthy drama. Hollywood makes few dramas as it is (they don't make as much money as action spectacles, horror, or broad comedy), and it's still not certain (despite the worldwide bankability of Will Smith and Denzel Washington) that it can sell to overseas audiences dramas rooted in the African-American experience. The exceptions in recent Oscar history have largely been movies like 'Precious' that were made outside Hollywood, movies set in Africa ('Invictus,' 'The Last King of Scotland,' "Blood Diamond,' 'Hotel Rwanda') or both.
There were some potential Oscar performances by black actors in movies that Academy voters ultimately ignored. Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie earned some acclaim for 'Night Catches Us,' an indie drama set in the Black Panther era, but the little-seen film didn't earn enough love or attention to win nominations from any major critics group. Djimon Hounsou co-starred in 'The Tempest,' but critics didn't love Julie Taymor's Shakespeare adaptation and may have seen Hounsou's casting as the savage Caliban as racially patronizing.
Tyler Perry's 'For Colored Girls' offered meaty roles to a who's-who of black actresses, and it was based on material with a literary pedigree and a place in the theatrical canon. Still, mainstream critics don't take Perry seriously; they see the Madea creator as someone who makes sanctimonious slapstick. They thought 'For Colored Girls' found him out of his depth, though they did single out Phylicia Rashad and Kimberly Elise for praise among his talented ensemble cast. (Of course, that there were so many strong actresses in the cast may have worked against the film, as no single one of them may have mustered enough Academy votes.)
The African-American star who may have had the best chance at an Oscar this year was Halle Berry. 'Frankie and Alice' marked her first movie in three years, and it gave her a difficult role as a schizophrenic, the sort of acting challenge and audience-pleasing tearjerker that the Academy usually loves. Berry's emotional 2002 Best Actress win for 'Monster's Ball' remains a highlight of Oscar history, and after the years she's spent since, wandering in the critical and commercial desert, the Academy may have been ready to embrace her once again. She even got a Golden Globe nomination for the role. But the film was barely released, critics were indifferent, and Natalie Portman already had the split-personality vote sewn up for 'Black Swan.'
The other reason there aren't more Oscar-worthy roles for black performers is that there are still not many African-American directors, screenwriters or studio executives. By and large, the people in those positions tend to make movies about the worlds they know. Look at the settings of this year's nominated films: the ivory towers of Harvard, the Irish Catholic enclaves on the outskirts of Boston, the canyons of Utah, the suburbs of Los Angeles, the ballet stages of New York, the Ozarks, the old West, Buckingham Palace. All that's missing are movies about hockey teams and bar mitzvahs.
The slate of upcoming 2011 movies offers few apparent opportunities for African-American actors to earn Oscar nominations next January. There's 'The Help,' a prestige drama based on the best-seller about African-American housemaids in the segregated South during the Civil Rights era. There might by Oscar nominations there for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. And the upcoming 'Winnie' stars Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard as Winnie and Nelson Mandela. It's the kind of set-in-Africa biopic that could earn both stars a return trip to the Kodak Theatre. And it's possible that an indie film not yet on Hollywood's radar -- like 'Precious' in 2009 - could feature meaty roles for African-American performers.
Otherwise, however, next year's Oscar list, and the lists in years to come, could very much resemble the roster announced Tuesday. Unless the Academy broadens its taste, or the industry stops pigeonholing African-American stars into a narrow range of movies, or there's an increase in diversity behind the camera, there probably won't be an increase in diversity at the Oscar podium.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman