By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won the best-acting Oscar categories and Sidney Poitier was honored with a lifetime achievement award in 2002, the night was a watershed for black actors in Hollywood.
Since then the debate about Hollywood diversity among the African American community has continued to ebb and flow, but one fact remains constant: nearly all black actors are still only being recognized by the Academy Awards for playing specifically black characters in film.
Four movies from 2013 have served to animate that conversation during Hollywood's awards season: "12 Years A Slave," "Lee Daniels' The Butler," "Fruitvale Station" and "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom." Only the first, Steve McQueen's historical drama, made it to the Oscars.
This year, three black actors will be vying for Oscars at the March 2 ceremony, and if "12 Years a Slave" wins best picture, it will be the first film by a black director to do so.
But as black films and actors are being celebrated by Hollywood, there is no clear indication that the industry has turned the corner on increasing roles not based on race.
That could be partly explained by the underrepresentation of black talent in senior positions in film studios and among the 6,000-plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who vote for the Oscars.
"When roles in otherwise mainstream movies go to black actors that aren't necessarily written for (them), I think that's a point when there will have been some profile change," said Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California and an expert on African American cinema and culture. "We are not there yet."
Seven of the nine best-picture nominees in contention for an Oscar this year, including large ensemble casts in "American Hustle" and "The Wolf of Wall Street," do not have any black actors in leading or supporting roles.
The two films that do, "Captain Phillips" and "12 Years a Slave," have landed acting nods for stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is up for best actor, and Lupita Nyong'o and Barkhad Abdi in the supporting categories.
British actor Ejiofor and Kenyan-Mexican actress Nyong'o both play slaves in McQueen's pre-civil-war drama, while Somali-American newcomer Abdi, in his first acting role, portrays a Somali pirate who seizes command of a cargo ship.
FROM MAMMY TO 'THE HELP'
More than 50 black actors and actresses have been nominated and won Oscars throughout the history of the Academy Awards. Most have done so for playing specifically black characters, either historical or fictional.
Washington managed to play an alcoholic airplane pilot in "Flight," a role for which he was nominated for best actor in 2013. But that was one of the rare exceptions.
"Why couldn't there be an African American starring in the role that Joaquin Phoenix plays (in 'Her')?" said Boyd. "When you see that, then there's a change."
Nearly 75 years ago Hattie McDaniel broke the racial barrier by winning for her supporting performance as the servant Mammy in 1939's "Gone With the Wind."
Twenty-four years later, Sidney Poitier became the first black actor to win best actor for playing an African American worker in 1963's "Lilies of the Field." It took another 38 years for Berry to become the first black best-actress winner for her role as an impoverished mother in the racially charged "Monster's Ball."
Since 2002 about 20 black actors have been nominated across the four categories, mostly for black roles. Some of the wins in this group include Jamie Foxx for his portrayal of singer Ray Charles in the biopic "Ray" and Octavia Spencer for her role as a maid in the civil rights story "The Help."
The year 2011 was particularly dismal for black actors and filmmakers at the Oscars: not one of the nominees among the nine best-picture contenders or four acting categories featured any black talent.
Even so, black actors may be faring better than other black employees behind the camera or in studio offices.
A study of the Academy membership by the Los Angeles Times in 2012 estimated that nearly 94 percent of the 5,765 members at the time were white, while only 2 percent were black. The Academy does not break down its demographic makeup.
'BACK TO SQUARE ONE'
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African American president of the Academy, said change can only come from the rank and file. "The men and women behind the scenes in every aspect of producing, marketing and distributing motion pictures will help to diversify the entire landscape for the industry," she said.
In recent years, a film industry catering to black audiences has taken off with releases from prolific filmmaker Tyler Perry and comedies such as "The Best Man Holiday" and this year's rom-com "About Last Night." A-list actors such as Berry, Washington, Viola Davis and Will Smith have also found roles in action and big-budget blockbusters for diverse audiences.
But black filmmakers, including those with previous Oscar success, often still face challenges with Hollywood studios.
Daniels, who made 2009's Oscar-winnning "Precious," said he was unable to convince studios to finance last year's historical film "The Butler," featuring an ensemble cast of respected black actors including Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.
"When I did 'Precious,' every studio told me that no one wanted to see that film," said Daniels; he was "back to square one" with "The Butler."
The film was eventually distributed by the Weinstein Co and earned Screen Actors Guild nominations, but was shut out of the Golden Globes and Oscars. It did better at the box office, grossing $167 million worldwide.
"Once (the studios) stop underestimating us, or we find African Americans or blacks in powerful positions that can greenlight (films)," said Daniels, "then there'll no longer be a problem."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Prudence Crowther)
(This story corrects description to "pre-civil-war drama" in paragraph 9)