Diversity Awards shines rainbow of positive results

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Hollywood often gets painted with a "liberal" political and social brush, but director Kenny Ortega knows differently. Although he has witnessed significant changes during a career that brought him to helm the 2006 Disney Channel phenomenon "High School Musical" (plus its sequel this year and an upcoming third installment), he can personally recall times when the industry was far from enlightened.

"I remember being a choreographer for various television programs and having network executives looking at my assembled cast and saying, 'Kenny, don't you think it's a little dark?'" Ortega recalls. "In other words, they wanted me to put more white people in there."

Then there was the time when he was working on a soft drink spot with a big commercial company and a problem arose with racially integrating dance partners.

"They said to me, 'You know, people that make sugar water aren't necessarily enlightened thinkers, so put the Latino guy with the Latina girl and the white guy with the white girl,'" Ortega says. "I refused and walked off the commercial. Ultimately, I got what I wanted and came back in and finished."

These days, however, studios and networks are notably singing a different tune (and dancing a different step). Although diversity remains an ongoing issue throughout Hollywood, more barriers have fallen in recent years, thanks in part to organizations like the Multicultural Motion Picture Assn., whose 15th annual Diversity Awards will be held at Universal Studios' Globe Theatre on Sunday night.

When the MMPA, founded by president Jarvee E. Hutcherson, arrived on the scene 15 years ago, the entertainment picture was looking decidedly more homogeneous: Halle Berry hadn't yet made Academy Awards history as the first African-American to win a best actress Oscar; there was no "Ugly Betty" on ABC, with its Emmy-winning Latina star America Ferrera; and no one was posting job offers for the position of "vp diversity."

But in a crowded kudos landscape that had become increasingly specialized, the Diversity Awards came along in 1992, bucking the niche-driven trend with an awareness-raising ceremony that was notably inclusive. Fifteen years later, the annual presentation of the Multicultural Motion Picture Assn. continues to forge a reputation for defying categorization.

"We have taken many strides forward," Hutcherson says. "It's an ongoing process of educating people that diversity means everyone. And the thing about our show is, we're not just celebrating a diversity of cultures, we're celebrating a diversity of entertainment. The screen is now reflecting what we're seeing around us."

"We're now seeing movies and shows that are microcosms of America and society in general," says Gordon Kenney, the executive producer of the Diversity Awards, which is being taped for syndication this year. "It's what we were striving to encourage and applaud years ago when the concept first arose, and it's heartwarming to see execs and creative minds all pretty much in sync with this very important way of doing business."

It's a bounty no one fully expected 15 years ago.

"What I've seen change now, working with the Disney Channel, for example, is that before I'm even in the audition, having the executives telling me to make sure that I look for ethnic diversity," Ortega says. "And that's a wonderful arrival. That's one battle I don't have to fight anymore."

Idris Elba, who is receiving this year's best actor in a drama Diversity Award for his performance in Tyler Perry's "Daddy's Little Girls" (Lionsgate), has definitely noticed a trend toward color-blind casting since arriving in Hollywood from England in the late 1990s.

"I've seen it in the writing," says Elba, who first received attention for his role on HBO's "The Wire." "Before I got on 'The Wire,' I was the audition king, and normally there would be a complete description of each character in a script. Now you don't see that. It's just, 'Michael, 35 years old.' There's no ethnic tag."

While cultural diversity has traditionally been more readily embraced in the sports world, there have been examples to the contrary in not-too-distant history, as demonstrated in the ESPN miniseries "The Bronx Is Burning."

The 2007 Diversity Awards winner for best dramatic made-for-television movie or miniseries, "Bronx" followed the New York Yankees' 1977 pennant race, complete with the legendary Billy Martin/Reggie Jackson off-field tension, as the city creaked under financial woes, the Son of Sam serial killer and a blackout that led to mass looting.

"From a scripted standpoint, I think sports teams allow for the portrayal of characters with diverse backgrounds because of that very makeup within sports," says "Bronx" executive producer Ron Semiao. "If you look at sports movies from generations ago, the iconic figures were primarily white, because that's what the playing field was made up of. As that has changed over time, you've seen it reflected in sports movies."

Since Hutcherson's model of true diversity goes beyond those old-school definitions of color and gender, it's not surprising to see Jon Heder, a comic actor with a strong youth following thanks to his popular turns in 2004's "Napoleon Dynamite" and this year's "Blades of Glory" (Paramount), listed as the 2007 Comedic Nova winner.

"Some young up-and-coming filmmakers told me that they appreciate seeing more diverse films and people being themselves," Hutcherson says. "Today we have more freedom in expressing ourselves, the freedom of doing something on the cutting edge, and I think the younger generation is even more in tune with that."

That younger generation also was in mind when the MMPA created its Educational and Development Scholarship Fund the same year that the Diversity Awards launched. Each year, recipients have an opportunity to brush up on their networking skills during an Oscar-week luncheon.

"It's a big hit," Hutcherson says. "We invite the students and the studios to come out, and we're reaching out to get the film and TV industry more involved."

For the moment, though, Hutcherson and company have earned the right to look back and celebrate 15 years of accomplishment and change for the better.

"I think that we're heading in the right direction," Kenney says. "I've watched some of the young people who were at USC film school and AFI get scholarships from the MMPA, and they are now currently working as industry professionals at studios and in production companies.

"And if the young scholarship recipients that I know of are any indication of what we've got to look forward to, not only is diversity safe, but it's in some great and capable hands," Kenney adds.

VITAL STATS: The hue of this year's Diversity Awards

What: The 2007 Diversity Awards
When: Sunday, Nov. 18, 6 p.m.
Where: Universal Studios Hollywood's Globe Theatre, Universal City
Afterparty: The Universal Hilton Hotel, 10 p.m.
Hosts: Debbie Matenopoulos and Kevin Frazier
Theme: "Celebrating Diversity -- The Best and the Brightest Making It Happen!"
Honorees:
Brittany Snow (Female Nova Award)
Elijah Kelley (Male Nova Award)
Jon Heder (Comedic Nova Award)
Mo'Nique (Renaissance Artist Award)
Leonardo DiCaprio (best documentary feature for Paramount's "The 11th Hour")
Kenny Ortega (best director in a comedy or musical for Disney Channel's "High School Musical 2")
Idris Elba (best actor in a drama for Lionsgate's "Daddy's Little Girls")
Fox's "House" (most compelling television drama)
ESPN's "The Bronx Is Burning" (best made-for-television movie
or miniseries)
Bravo's "Work Out" (favorite diverse television ensemble)
NBC's "Passions" (favorite daytime television drama)
CBS' "Shark" (favorite drama ensemble)
NBC's "The Office" (favorite comedy ensemble)
CBS Entertainment (diverse network programming)
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