Saturday, February 24, 2007

Essay 1758

From The Chicago Sun-Times…


Oscars reflect greater cultural diversity in movies today


Jamestown’s 400th anniversary is also a multicultural milestone year for movie minorities. Reflecting our increasingly internationalized society and world, the current bumper crop of films made and released in America is arguably the most culturally diverse in motion picture history. Today’s silver screen features Latinos, blacks, Native Americans, Asians, Arabs and Polynesians shattering celluloid stereotypes.

Civil rights icon Jesse Jackson, who long struggled to integrate the film/TV industry, is “delighted” by this development. Edward James Olmos, a 1988 best actor Oscar nominee for “Stand and Deliver,” declares: “It’s the most prolific time we’ve ever had as Latinos in Hollywood.”

Many of these films earn accolades. This year, the Directors Guild nominated Olmos for directing HBO’s “Walkout,” about L.A.’s 1968 Chicano protests -- which inspired 2006 student strikes against immigration policies. “All of the Oscar-nominated pictures put together give lots of hope to diversity in general, and world cinema in particular,” Olmos said.

In this record-setting year, Latinos received 16 nominations in categories including best picture, directing, acting, cinematography, screenwriting and music. There were nominations for Spanish-born Penelope Cruz for “Volver” and her fellow Mexicans Adriana Barraza (best supporting actress for “Babel”) and directors Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron.

Innaritu is nominated for directing best picture nominee “Babel.” In best foreign film contender “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the terrors of Franco’s fascist Spain become a child’s fantasy, earning del Toro a screenwriting nomination. Cuaron is co-nominated for editing and screenwriting Oscars for “Children of Men.”

Blacks’ screen image is also rising; Oscar may make history during Black History Month. Will Smith is up for “The Pursuit of Happyness,” which reveals U.S. poverty while challenging caricatures of African Americans as absentee fathers. Jamie Foxx stars in “Dreamgirls,” nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best supporting acting for Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson.

African-born Djimon Hounsou is likewise nominated for best supporting Oscar for the Sierra Leone-set “Blood Diamond.” Best actor Oscar contender Forest Whitaker plays Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.”

Other ethnic groups are likewise ascendant. Once-faceless World War II Asian enemies have human faces in “Letters from Iwo Jima” via actors Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya. The anti-war film is Oscar-nominated, as are director Clint Eastwood and its screenwriters. As a troubled deaf teenager, Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi vies for best supporting actress for “Babel.”

Although overlooked, 2006 was a banner year for the Western Hemisphere’s indigenous people. Four films took the Americas’ natives beyond the cowboys and Indians paradigm. Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” and Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” depict ancient Mayans. In Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” aboriginal actor Adam Beach depicts real-life World War II Marine Ira Hayes.

What accounts for today’s movie minority cornucopia? Films mirror globalization and demographic shifts, such as the emergence of Hispanics as America's largest nonwhite group. The Colts’ Tony Dungy became the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl, while blacks wield greater congressional power than at any time since Reconstruction.

Hollywood depictions of nationalities certainly remain imperfect. But one can only ponder what natives such as Pocahontas, Africans here before the Mayflower and groups who came later would make of cinema's brave new multicultural world. From 1607 to 2007, Jamestown’s settlers and indigenous people, plus other ethnic ancestors who've composed the melting pot now called America, have come a long way, baby.

Luis I. Reyes and Ed Rampell co-authored Made In Paradise, Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Seas and Pearl Harbor In the Movies.

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