Diversity key at this year's Academy Awards

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This is a historic year for the Academy Awards, but not merely because it's the most wide-open best picture category in decades. That matters a lot less to me than the fact that it's the most wide-open Oscars, period, in terms of ethnic representation -- and not merely from a politically correct perspective.

It's the first Oscars I can recall when the nominees look like us: not just white but black, and Mexican, and British, and Japanese. And I'm not just talking about in the foreign film category but all over the map.

Start with the fact that Oscar forecasters predict we will be seeing black actors claiming most of the statuettes in the four acting categories. Five of the 20 nominees for lead and supporting acting this time are black, which is unprecedented. In fact, the buzz is that Forest Whitaker ("The Last King of Scotland"), Jennifer Hudson ("Dreamgirls") and Eddie Murphy ("Dreamgirls") all pretty much have it in the bag in their respective lead and supporting acting categories.

In the 73 years up through 2001, only 13 African-Americans have been nominated in the two lead acting categories. Since 2002, 11 black actors and actresses have snared nominations in the four acting categories combined. Four of them emerged victorious: Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman.

But it's not just that Oscar is paying overdue attention to black performers this year. The exclusively white American look of years past has given way to a far more international flavor:

The lead-actress grouping features three British-born performers (Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet), one born in Spain (Penelope Cruz) and just one (Meryl Streep) from the U.S.

In the supporting actress race, the melting pot is more diverse still thanks to the acclaim for "Babel" and its multicultural storytelling featuring the talents of Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi and Mexican actress Adriana Barraza. Aussie Cate Blanchett also figures in this race for her role in "Notes on a Scandal."

Of the five best-picture contenders, one is set in Morocco and at the Mexican border ("Babel"), one in the U.K. ("The Queen") and a third in World War II-era Japan ("Letters From Iwo Jima"). And of the five contenders for directing, there are two from Britain (Stephen Frears for "The Queen," Paul Greengrass for "United 93") and one from Mexico City (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu). We could also point to the global representation of the screenplay contenders (England, Mexico, Japan).

I'm not the first to point all of this out. But it's worthy of repetition that the voting members of the film Academy seem a lot more open this time to recognizing the whole of the racial and ethnic spectrum that they see on a daily basis in Southern California and New York. It can't be oversold that this is a moment to savor, and again not simply from the standpoint of political expediency.

You can't even say that this coincides with a move to boost ratings. No, this appears to be all about nominating the right people regardless of skin tone or nation of origin, not to satisfy any sort of pressure-group directive or stated diversity goals. This time around, it seems that sheer talent has won out, which goes a long way to support the old canard that it really is an honor just to be nominated.

Sure, it took the Oscars 79 years to get here. But now that they've finally made it, let's hope they stay awhile.
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