Producer Peter Rawley recalls trying recently to get a top talent agency to see two Indian actors. Most agents, he has found through the years, would rather go with a sure thing than take a risk on signing "ethnic" talent. In this case, he had to assure them that many people in India speak English.
"They said, 'Why would they do that?'" said Rawley, a former agent. "I had to explain to them that English is one of the official languages in India. Once I was at a studio and I was pitching a Simon Bolivar story. I told them, 'You know, Simon Bolivar, the great liberator of South America?' and they said, 'Liberated from whom?'"
For minorities in Hollywood, change has come very slowly. The subject once again came to the fore Sunday night at the Academy Awards when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won the top acting honors and Sidney Poitier received a lifetime achievement award. In her acceptance speech, Berry said her Oscar could open doors for other women of color. But despite these heralded awards, real diversity remains an elusive goal in Hollywood, according to those who work in the industry and those who observe it.
"The wins that we saw on Oscar night are arguably well deserved--they gave some great performances," said agent Rob Kim of United Talent Agency, one of a handful of Asian American agents in town. "I don't know that it necessarily matters that much. Does [Berry's] win mean more roles for African American women? I don't think so. I think more people will want to hire Denzel and more people will want to hire Halle Berry."
Some believe that the awards might have made academy members feel good--and served as a source of pride among African Americans--but that in terms of recognition of minority talent, it was too little, too late.
"I think it's a little too obvious--it's like all of a sudden [the academy] remembered that we exist," said director Leon Ichaso ("Pinero"), who is Cuban. "There have been incredible performances in the past which were totally ignored. That award should have been given to Denzel years ago, and to many others."
The questions facing Hollywood are complex and layered. They include the dearth of minority representation at all levels, from script writers to studio executives, producers, agents and managers. Perhaps even more important in a bottom-line-driven industry is the studios' growing reliance on the international market, where having minorities and women in starring roles is considered a detriment, particularly in action blockbusters.
In 2000, nearly 46% of the studios' total profits came from sales abroad, according to the weekly publication Screen International. The so-called "event movies" or blockbusters account for 60% of the studios' box-office revenues, according to the publication.
"None of this is going to change the fact that you cannot package or sell [a movie] to the world market today with a black woman," said James Ulmer, author of "James Ulmer's Hollywood Hot List," which tracks actors' global marketability. "I don't see [the Oscar win] as changing an industry where white male actors drive the train of the international marketplace."
Behind the camera, minorities are just as underrepresented. Hollywood may be seen by outsiders to be a politically progressive enclave, but the industry's hiring practices and the opportunities available for nonwhites have not progressed much in 30 years, said Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC's School of Cinema-Television.
"This contradicts the perception of Hollywood as being liberal," said Boyd, who also wrote and produced the 1999 film "The Wood," a coming-of-age drama about three young African Americans in Inglewood. "If it was so liberal and on the vanguard, we would not be sitting here 30 years later talking about African Americans being nominated. Hollywood is really reprehensible in this regard."
As with almost everything to do with race in America, the Berry and Washington wins have become the subject of contention. Behind the scenes, some academy members wondered whether too much was made about the race issue. Some even wondered if the academy's "guilt" in overlooking minorities for so long would play a deciding role in granting the Oscar to Washington.
Ron Howard, director of "A Beautiful Mind" and winner of two Oscars Sunday night, told La Opinion last week, "The only thing that would prevent [Russell Crowe] from winning, is that the academy, out of guilt, try to repair the damage that it did to Denzel Washington by not having given him the Oscar for his performance in 'The Hurricane.'" After his win, Washington made a reference to race being irrelevant, and pleaded with the media to recognize him and Berry as actors and not African American actors.