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banner Monday, 25 March, 2002, 07:59 GMT
Black actors hail Oscar success
Halle Berry with Billy Bob Thornton
Halle Berry falls in love with a racist in Monster's Ball
By the BBC's Peter Bowes in Los Angeles

For the first time since 1972, the list of Oscar nominees included three black lead actors.

Halle Berry, won best actress for her role in the racially charged drama, Monster's Ball,.

Will Smith (Ali) was beaten by Denzel Washington for his performances in Training Day.

The inclusion of this trio of black stars in the nominations was significant.

During its 74-year history, the Motion Picture Academy has handed out only six Oscar statues to African American actors - five for supporting roles.

Will Smith in Ali
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee: Smith in Ali

"Women of colour aren't often there," said Berry before the awards.

"To be there, I not only represent myself but I represent all of us in a way: all people, women of colour.

"It feels great," she adds.

In 1972, two black actresses were nominated for the top award - Diana Ross, who played Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, and Cicely Tyson for her role in Sounder.

But the award went to Cabaret star Liza Minnelli, prompting some to suggest that the two black nominees had, in effect, cancelled each other out.

'Right direction'

The snubbing of Tyson has been described as one of the biggest oversights in Oscar history.

"I still do not know if I will live to see the day that a black woman wins the leading actress Oscar," Berry had said.

Now she has.

In Monster's Ball, Berry plays the widow of a man executed by a racist, white prison warden with whom she subsequently falls in love.

Only one black actor has won in the lead actor category - Sidney Poitier, for his performance as the handyman Homer Smith in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field.

Coincidentally, Poitier was be presented with an honorary Oscar at this year's ceremony "for his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen".

Denzel Washington
Long arm of the law: Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington, now nominated five times, has won only once before - as a supporting actor in the 1989 picture Glory.

Will Smith, who surprised many with his nomination, has been quick to seize the opportunity to applaud the work of black actors - especially his co-stars in Ali.

"There's a predominately black cast, so essentially this is a $100m (70,000), big-budget Hollywood movie with black people."

Black actors have long complained that Hollywood is a hotbed of racism.

British actor Anthony Armatrading, the younger brother of singer Joan Armatrading, moved to Los Angeles two years ago.

He appeared in the ITV mini-series Colour Blind, based on a story by Catherine Cookson.

The period drama, set on Tyneside during World War I, was about an interracial relationship.

He says, as a black actor, finding good roles in Tinseltown is not easy.

Sometimes I think the powers that be can't quite imagine a white audience sticking their bums on seats and buying tickets to see a black lead in a film

Anthony Armatrading

"It's very, very difficult for black actors to make it here," he says.

"There's almost a perception that black actors can't quite do it, which is very odd, or that black stories are not universal stories - which is not true."

Armatrading's views are echoed by Smith.

"Blacks in America are a 13% minority," he says.

"It's that much harder we have to work, and that much more we have to shine.

"For a month, at least, there's going to be some nice smiles in the African-American community."

In fact, black moviegoers in Los Angeles are already celebrating.

"It's been a long time," says Ron Brewington of the LA Watts Times.

"A lot of African Americans spend their money at the box office, and they're saying: 'We've put our money in Hollywood. Hollywood, recognise us: don't forget us.'"

Film fan Robert Williams adds: "Society has stereotyped us for a long time, and I think it is real good to see celebrities in the black community move to a level that's respected by society."

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