How Diverse Is 'Oscar'?

Hollywood's biggest night —- the 81st Annual Academy Awards — is just around the corner. This year's nominees represent a broad range portrayals, from growing up in India's poorest areas and a man who ages backwards, to a mother who is facing an unthinkable family tragedy. Author and film historian Esther Iverem takes listeners inside the race for the Oscars, and looks at nominees of color.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

As we just talked about, the film "Slumdog Millionaire" has raised awareness of the lives of poor kids in India. But it's also brought diversity to the Oscar race this year.

To hear more about what to expect at the Oscar's this Sunday, we've invited Esther Iverem. She's the author of "We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies." She's here with me in the studio in Washington. Welcome. Thanks for coming.

Ms. ESTHER IVEREM (Author, "We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies"): Oh, thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Since we were talking about "Slumdog," it's getting a lot of buzz, 10 nominations. What are the movie's chances on Oscar night? You think it will actually sweep the board?

Ms. IVEREM: I think it has a very good chance. It already won a Golden Globe, and its biggest competition is "The Curious Life of Benjamin Button." I don't know what's going to happen, you know. And I just think that, you know, if the American voters voted the way the foreign press did, then, you know, "Slumdog," you know, will win. I've seen a number of like critic shows where they have, you know, thumbs up, thumbs down sort of thing. And you know, inevitably, one critic will pick "Slumdog" for the number one movie of the year, and the other one will pick "Benjamin Button." So, you know, I don't know what's going to happen. I think that, you know, I would pick "Slumdog."

MARTIN: Interesting. OK. Well, speaking of "Benjamin Button," we're going to speak to Taraji P. Henson in just a few minutes. She's nominated for Best Supporting Actress nomination. That category has a lot of diversity. There is Taraji, and there is also Viola Davis...

Ms. IVEREM: Right.

MARTIN: Who's nominated for her role in the movie "Doubt," and she's also - isn't she confronting another actress in the same movie in the same role or...

Ms. IVEREM: Exactly.

MARTIN: That's a tough category. Two actresses from "Doubt," and two actresses of color in the same category. I do want to play a short clip of Viola's performance which is - it's actually very brief but powerful. Here it is. Actually, just let me tell you what it is. She's portraying the mother of a son who may or may not have been abused by a priest. Here it is.

(Soundbite of movie "Doubt")

Ms. VIOLA DAVIS: (As Mrs. Miller) My boy came to your school because they were going to kill him in a public school. His father don't like him. He come to your school, kids don't like him. One man is good to him, this priest. And does the man have his reasons? Yes. Everybody does. You have your reasons, but do I ask the man why he's good to my son? No.

MARTIN: I hate to put you on the spot, Esther, but you got a handicap(ph) that award for me - who do you think has the edge?

Ms. IVEREM: I think she may have the edge only because of the Golden Globe already, and there is this buzz that's building around her nomination that I don't hear for the other actresses, and maybe my hearing is subjective and - but you know, the thing I love about the nomination is that, you know, she's had a chance to, you know, show who she really is as an actress. Have you really seen her outside of these roles? You know, she played, you know, this really kind of bleak, you know, beaten woman in "Antwone Fisher," and the same thing in this...

MARTIN: She's very well known on the New York stage, too. She's had some wonderful roles in August Wilson's plays, but I don't know that people really know her outside of the New York theater world.

Ms. IVEREM: Right. And in this film, she's playing this woman who is just - she's really just beaten down, and she just wants to, you know, save her son, to do the best for him. And when she appears like on like the "Tonight Show" or these other shows, people - they're shocked to see that there's this tall, you know, beautiful woman, built like a brick house, you know, she comes out in her mini-dress, and they're like, oh, I was expecting, you know, a grandmother.

MARTIN: Her to be miserable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEREM: I was expecting my grandmother to come out, you know, so good for her. You know, good for Taraji Henson because they have ran this gauntlet that exists for black actresses in Hollywood, and they've managed to secure these nominations, and it's not easy. I mean, there aren't that many roles out there...

MARTIN: It's interesting, too, that the Best Supporting Actress category seems to have the most diversity. Penelope Cruz is is also nominated for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," and as we just mentioned, Taraji Henson and Viola Davis. Why do you think that is? Is there something about that category, that supporting category that lends itself to diversity? I don't know.

Ms. IVEREM: I think that if you look back at the categories where we've received nominations, you know, this is a big category for us. And we don't receive roles where we're going to get a leading role, you know, nomination. And when we do receive those, you know, sometimes they're problematic. So, you know, this is the category where, you know, Whoopi Goldberg won for "Ghost," and you know, Hattie Gosset(ph) won...

MARTIN: Hattie McDaniel and Lou Gosset, Jr.

Ms. IVEREM: Exactly.

MARTIN: For "An Officer and a Gentleman."

Ms. IVEREM: So this has been out category - supporting, supporting.

MARTIN: Another performance that got a lot of buzz was Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of a black soldier in the comedy - kind of a comedy, "Tropic Thunder." He plays a white actor who uses black face to get into his character, and he never lets up - now, he is also nominated for Best Supporting Actor. What do you think about his role, and how is this role being perceived? It got of a lot of - there was a lot of, I think, discomfort in the kind of film-going community around the black-face piece, but what about the people who actually get to vote?

Ms. IVEREM: Well, I - when I wrote about the film, I really - I wasn't offended by it. I thought that the role was kind of making fun of black face. It was kind of making fun of Hollywood's, you know, tendency to want to cast a white actor and make them anything else other than - rather than cast a person of color. So it was really kind of making fun of Hollywood. So that's - that's really - that was my opinion of it, and so I don't - I don't see this being a - you know, I don't have a problem with that.

MARTIN: Let's talk about - briefly - about the Best Documentary, "Trouble the Water." It follows a black couple in New Orleans with some home videos shot during and after Hurricane Katrina, is nominated. Let me just play a short clip.

(Soundbite of documentary film "Trouble the Water")

Unidentified Woman #1: I cannot say that they did not have the means. Our government is supposed to be one of the greatest. But it's proven to me that, hey, if you don't have money and you don't have status, you don't have a government.

Unidentified Woman #2: My son wanted to go in the army. I'll be damned if he does. No, no way. You're going to go to college, even I have to wash somebody's floors to make sure you go. You are going to college. You're not going to fight for a country that does not give a damn for you. No way.

MARTIN: Esther, does the news-worthiness of a documentary play a factor in its popularity? I mean, a lot of these documentaries are not widely seen by the broader film-going public. A lot of film people seek them out, a lot of news people seek them out, but does the kind of buzz around it or the topicality of it play a role in how it's received by the Academy?

Ms. IVEREM: I think so. And this particular documentary gives poor people voice that they don't normally have, you know. There's no filter there. There is no, you know, person standing with them kind of translating for them. And the couple basically gets to express how they feel and what's going on in their lives.

MARTIN: Well, I can't wait to see how it all - how it all comes out, Esther. Don't - I'll be burning up your phone Sunday night to find out if you're right about these pics, so we'll check back with you. Esther Iverem wrote "We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies." She is also the founder of seeingblack.com, and she was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Esther, thank you.

Ms. IVEREM: Thank you.

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