When Sidney Poitier won the Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1964, it was the first time an African-American had won an Academy Award in the Best Actor or Best Actress categories.
It was also the last time.
In the 74-year history of the Academy Awards, Poitier is the only black actor to have won an award for a leading role. This year, however, no fewer than three black actors are nominated in the Best Actor categories: Denzel Washington in Training Day, Halle Berry in Monster's Ball and Will Smith in Ali.
Smith says the cliché is true: It really is an honor just to be nominated. "The Oscar is one of those awards where the nomination really is big enough, " he told ABCNEWS. "Just being nominated for an Oscar, you have 'Oscar nominee Will Smith,' you know?"
Asked whether he is aware of a change in Hollywood, with black actors getting more Oscar-worthy roles, Smith mentioned a telephone call he made to Washington on the morning they were nominated. "I called Denzel, you know, it's a really weird camaraderie thing," he said. "I actually feel like I have two chances to win, you know? That's how I feel. If Denzel wins, I feel like I won, too."
Five black actors have won Oscars for supporting roles: Hattie McDaniel for her role in Gone With the Wind (1940), Louis Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Washington in Glory (1989), Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost (1990) and Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire (1996). James Baskett received an honorary award in 1948 for playing Uncle Remus in Song of the South.
The last time three black actors were nominated for leading role awards in the same year was 1972, when Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson got the nod for Sounder, and Diana Ross for Lady Sings the Blues.
Win or Lose
Smith said that just hearing his name announced for the nomination was an unforgettable moment, and that whether he wins the award or not, he expects a dramatic reaction either way.
"It's just one of those things that it's actually better than winning or losing. If you lose the Oscar, then people say, 'Aw! God, he didn't get it!' And if you win, then they expect something from you from that point," he said, adding, "I just wish the awards would never come."
Already, Smith says, he is getting a different reaction around Hollywood.
"It's amazing how people react," he said. "People look at you differently, people talk to you differently."
Can Hollywood Cast Color-Blind?
There are many factors involved in winning an Oscar, and race is probably among the least of them. Morgan Freeman, one of film's greatest living actors, didn't win an Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy in 1989. To say he should have won means you're saying Daniel Day-Lewis shouldn't have won for My Left Foot. Five years later, Freeman was nominated for The Shawshank Redemption. He lost — but he lost to Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump.
The problem for actors of color has not been winning the Oscar. The problem has been convincing Hollywood to cast color-blind, to give them the serious, deep, dramatic roles that can show off an actor's genius.
"I think what I'm most happy about is that actors — especially like Denzel and Will, and Chris Tucker and Eddie Murphy — they're able to be in movies that really do feel like they're somewhat color-blind," Berry said on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "Especially with Denzel. He's often in movies where he's just a man in the movie, and that the color of his skin really isn't the issue."
Berry said she thinks Washington is picking up where Poitier left off. "Sidney sort of handed him the ball," she said.
"I'm always one that likes to look at the upside vs. the downside, and I think things are changing," Berry said. "Absolutely."
Berry said she felt like a winner when she was given the lead in Monster's Ball opposite Billy Bob Thornton. The romance between a white man and a black woman is the kind of love story Hollywood wouldn't have touched even 10 years ago.
"It's been my goal in life to have people just love each other for who they are," Berry said. "And in this movie, these two people who, for all practical purposes, would never be together have to come together through their commonality of a real human emotion, which is pain, and their need for love. That brings these two people together."
The movie's theme is that people are people, no matter what color they are.
"Love is love, and if you open your heart up to it, you'll find it sometimes in the oddest packages," Berry said.