Cover Story: Getting Real About Voting for the Reel

Black actors and actresses still struggle to get notice in Hollywood

A little over a week ago, I received an invitation to be a part of a panel of voters created to nominate candidates and eventually select the winners of the 2003 Black Reel Awards. The awards are hosted by Sterling Communications Group, Inc., the publishers of, a film Web site which targets African Americans. I immediately downloaded the ballot from the Web site and began to rewind my cinematic memories of the past year.

So, here I sit with my Black Reel Awards ballot, about to engage in this most democratic process. Obviously, the candidates are limited to African-American talent, both in front of and behind the cameras. Despite that, there's a unique lack of discrimination based on film genre. For instance, the best actor category features 15 performances from action films (Wesley Snipes received separate consideration for his work in Blade 2 and Undisputed; Ving Rhames ­ Undisputed; Vin Diesel ­ XXX; Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson ­ The Scorpion King), comedy (Eddie Griffin ­ Undercover Brother; Lil Bow Wow ­ Like Mike; Ice Cube ­ Barbershop; Taye Diggs ­ Brown Sugar) and drama (Denzel Washington ­ John Q; Samuel L. Jackson ­ Changing Lanes; Blair Underwood ­ Full Frontal; Wood Harris ­ Paid in Full; Dennis Haysbert ­ Far From Heaven; Derek Luke ­ Antwone Fisher).

The most striking thing about that list is that it includes every significant lead performance by an African-American male. The ballot includes space for write-in nominees, but I dare audiences to try to find one that's not already on the list. The best actress list features nine performances.

That's right, I said nine. That's enough to count on your two hands and still have a finger to spare. This fact is made more somber when you consider that we are only 10 months removed from the "Historic Night" at the Academy Awards when Denzel Washington earned a best actor Oscar for Training Day and Halle Berry claimed the top actress award for Monster's Ball.

Both of them are up for consideration in this year's Black Reel Awards. Besides his inclusion on the best actor list, Denzel is also part of the best supporting actor contingent, and as best director for his directorial debut, Antwone Fisher. Berry's turn in Die Another Day places her among the best actress group. Remember, the Black Reel Awards intend to recognize entertaining efforts, not pretense and highbrow aspirations.

The Black Reel Awards nominees confirm that the opportunities afforded to African-American performers are based on what studios believe audiences are used to seeing. Technically, among this year's best actor category, only Derek Luke, Dennis Haysbert and Blair Underwood star in films that don't skew towards the urban market.

Only three of the nine best actress candidates (Angela Bassett ­ Sunshine State; Thandie Newton ­ The Truth About Charlie; Joy Bryant ­ Antwone Fisher) come from films that I would describe as acceptable dramas for African-American actresses.

Washington's involvement on both sides of the camera is attracting extra attention for Antwone Fisher. Derek Luke was honored with the breakthrough performance for an actor by the National Board of Review and received a best male lead nomination from the 2003 IFP Independent Spirit Awards.

Viola Davis is gaining good notices for her supporting work in Antwone Fisher. She deserves special consideration for her work this season. She has three strong supporting roles in films that have attracted serious attention. Besides her work in Fisher, which is not even listed among the supporting actress candidates for the Black Reel Awards, her quiet presence is felt in the critical favorite Far From Heaven (another role absent from the Reel list). But her most compelling work is in Steven Soderbergh's remake of Solaris.

Far more attention has been given to practically every other aspect of Solaris, including its ample use of George Clooney's butt as a special effect. For my money, it's Davis' performance that taps into the energy of the story. As Dr. Gordon, one of the two surviving crew members of a space station orbiting the mysterious planet Solaris, Davis is the sole, commanding voice of reason. While everyone confronts physical manifestations of their longings and succumbs to pop psychology temptations to make peace with their pasts, Davis argues strongly to resist and ultimately protect humanity from a possibly stagnant future. Her strength and intelligence are grounded in her nature as a black woman, yet race is never explicitly mentioned.

Within critical circles, no one has acknowledged the strengths that Davis brought to the role or this film. In fact, Jonathan Rosenbaum from The Chicago Reader could only see Davis as "a PC replacement for a white male in the original." That reaction reminds me of a line from the prologue of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man where his nameless narrator attempts to breakdown the notion of what is seen or not seen by those who pass him on the street. He comments, "When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me."

I can say that when I submit my nominating ballot, and eventually cast my final votes for the 2003 Black Reel Awards, it will document clearly what I have seen this past year, and more of what I hope to see in the future. Sooner or later, Hollywood has to face reality, right? ©

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