Recognizing the Achievements of Black Actors

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  1. Adam's Apple

    Adam's Apple Senior Member

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    Come See! A Representative America
    By Rochelle Riley, Detroit Free Press
    February 17, 2005

    As a child growing up in the 1960s, my family lived in a house with one television that we gathered together to watch. I recall clearly those times when my grandfather or grandmother would yell with excitement for everyone to "Come see!" whenever a person of color was on. It didn't matter what that person was doing. It mattered that they were there.

    My grandfather's favorite was Arthur Duncan, a thin, handsome tap dancer on the Lawrence Welk show. My brother, sister and I preferred "Wild Wild West" or "Lost in Space," but the family never missed Lawrence Welk, Ed Sullivan and Leslie Uggams on "Sing Along with Mitch."

    So when nominations for the 2005 Academy Awards, film and acting's highest honors, were announced Tuesday, I felt like calling out "Come see!" A record five of the 20 acting nominees are people of color, four of them black. Only one is likely to win, but there is hope.

    Hope comes in many shapes and can be found in all kinds of places — a child's prayer, a rainy day. Some of the hope surrounding this year's awards has to do with a sense that finally, stories that reflect the cultural fabric of America have a place at the table.

    Why does it matter? For African Americans who still believe their lives and their stories get short shrift in film, in television, in literature and in news, this year's nominations offer either an interesting anomaly or a hopeful trend.

    After all, decades passed between the first black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel for her breakthrough performance in 1939's "Gone with the Wind," and the second, Sidney Poitier for his sensitive portrayal of a carpenter in 1963's "Lilies of the Field."

    Nineteen more years passed before Louis Gossett Jr. won an Oscar for "An Officer and a Gentleman." Seven years later, Whoopi Goldberg became a surprise winner for 1989's "Ghost." Seven years later, Cuba Gooding Jr. won for "Jerry McGuire."

    When Halle Berry and Denzel Washington took top acting honors in 2002 it was a watershed moment. Again, you ask: Why care? Because this year, filmgoers saw history and heartbreak, love and honor — through the eyes of black characters.

    It matters because film and TV and literature are the greatest reflections of how we see ourselves in America. When black Americans sit in darkened theaters and never see themselves, it confirms Ralph Ellison's thesis and makes us "invisible people."

    Every black American achievement — whether in science or in movies — brings America closer to a time when race doesn't matter, when we don't point to the TV screen or judicial bench in awe at something unusual.

    Soon the idea of an all-white slate of candidates, nominees or finalists of any kind will be considered odd, out of kilter, unusual.

    When that time comes, and only then, will America — who has grown from a headstrong girl with a dream to a learned woman with power — resemble the woman in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision — a woman without prejudice and a woman admired for her ability to make everyone feel at home.

    © 2005, Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services

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