Diversity Awards

The annual program focuses on multicultural messaging.

Oscar Wilde maintained, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates life," but these days, Hollywood is making strides with the latter -- at least as far as ethnic diversity is concerned.

Take Paramount's "World Trade Center," Oliver Stone's intense drama based on the Sept. 11 tragedy in which people from 70 countries died. In the movie, "Everyone was who they were. The blacks were the blacks -- it was reality-based," Stone says. "Three Hispanic policemen went into the building with John McLoughlin, who was Irish-American, so I cast three Hispanic actors in those roles. It was a story about the melting pot and about America reacting to the World Trade Center. And it was astounding how Hispanic and Irish-American and Italian-American the Port Authority is, and sometimes Eastern European and Polish -- generally speaking, what we call immigrant-class people. There were not a lot of WASPs."

Casting held fast to reality, and two of Stone's actors, Michael Pena and Maria Bello, will receive honors during the Multicultural Motion Picture Assn.'s 14th annual Diversity Awards, set to be held Sunday at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel. Stone was impressed by Pena's turn as a locksmith in 2005's "Crash" and tapped him for the starring role of Port Authority officer Will Jimeno.

Pena will receive the Male Nova Award, while Bello will be named best actress in a drama. Filmmaker Michael Mann will take home the Visionary Award; Paula Patton, the Female Nova Award; Nick Cannon, the Creative Maverick Award; Bai Ling, the Spirit Award; Fox's "Bones," the Most Compelling Television Drama Award; NBC's "My Name Is Earl," the Favorite Comedy Ensemble prize; CBS' "Criminal Minds," the Favorite Drama Ensemble honor; and NBC, the Diverse Network Programming Award.

Says MMPA founder and president Jarvee Hutcherson of the 1,400-member organization, "When we speak of diversity, we speak of diversity of ideals, not only diversity of cultural background. And perhaps we speak of things overlooked at other cultural awards." He emphasizes, "Diversity means everyone. A lot of people think of the multicultural aspects -- Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, Jews, and that aspect -- but diversity means everyone."

Gordon Kenney, who is an executive producer on the show, along with Hutcherson, agrees. "Diversity means a wide array of ideas, perspectives and talent," he says, adding, "Someone like Maria Bello really touched the imagination as the best actress nod because of her movie portrayal with a situation and a subject matter that really meant something -- 9/11."

Both Hutcherson and Kenney regard the Diversity Awards -- which, this year, will be taped for syndication -- as the kickoff of awards season, pointing out that last year, "Crash" co-writer/director/producer Paul Haggis and the film's Terrence Howard were both honored there and went on to Oscar recognition. The MMPA also sponsors a scholarship fund that matches students with mentors at production companies, and it presents a scholarship luncheon with Oscar nominees, set for Feb. 23, 2007.

Hollywood's awareness of cultural diversity, "Bones" executive producer Barry Josephson says, has never been greater -- and it's been a driving force on his own series. "If you don't make an ethnically diverse show, or racially diverse or religiously diverse, then you are not reflecting society. You limit yourself compassion- and conflict-wise," he says, citing "WTC" and "Crash" as movies that excelled at portraying diversity. "Certainly, you can't get away with Marlon Brando as an Asian character anymore like he was in (1956's 'The Teahouse of the August Moon')."

This season, other TV series embracing diversity include ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and "Lost" and NBC's "Heroes" and "Law & Order," the latter of which recently dealt with racial profiling. Also, on the Peacock's critically acclaimed "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," a recent story line found Bradley Whitford's character going to see a black comic at the urging of D.L. Hughley's character, who wants a black writer on the show's staff. "(Creator/executive producer) Aaron (Sorkin) really hit the nail on the head there," NBC Entertainment's executive vp casting Marc Hirschfeld says. "That was a diversity issue."

For Michael Mann, diversity is a given. "I like specificity, so I usually go towards people who have a lot of specificity of type -- ethnically, culturally," he says. "When I put together an ensemble, what I'm looking for is something that looks like reality."

When Mann first saw the script for 2004's "Collateral," it was written for a Woody Allen-ish Jewish-American cab driver and his mother; instead, Mann decided he wanted it to feature Jamie Foxx as a repressed middle-class black man in Los Angeles dealing with his mother. And, Mann recalls, "It was particularly important to me that Jada (Pinkett Smith) in 'Collateral' come from an old, established middle-class African-American family. She didn't come up from the 'hood. She didn't get a scholarship. Her mommy and daddy wrote a check, and she went to Stanford."

Even in stories in which ethnicity was not an issue, Mann also has been known to make diverse casting choices. In 1995's "Heat," he cast the American Indian actor Wes Studi, who had played the menacing Magua for him in 1992's "The Last of the Mohicans," as a white-collar detective. "Sometimes, you're enslaved to the way a part's written," Mann says. "If it's a historical character who was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, you can't cast an African-American, and the reverse is true. When it's not, it's wide open, as it should be."

Insisting that an actor's ethnicity match that of a character, however, can become politically charged and restrictive. "I don't get it sometimes that it has to be along these narrow lines," sighs Stone, who worried about casting Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jimeno's wife in "WTC." "Will's wife was Italian-German, and she was probably a little more Italian. But I wanted Maggie because she's a great actress, and she just had a volatile energy."

That suited Pena perfectly. "As far as ethnicity goes," Pena says, "I acknowledge that there is a difference in skin and maybe facial features, but I look at a lot more similarities, to be honest with you. I never went to acting class. I learned acting by mimicking and joking around with my friends and looking at life. The best scripts, the best acting, are where there's some sort of truth. For me, acting is a bit more universal."

Indeed, as Wilde observed, "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." And at the Diversity Awards, all versions of that truth will get their say.