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Wednesday, February 14, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movies

Commentary: Color is still an issue in nominations

Seattle Times A&E editor

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One step forward, two steps back.

When are Oscar voters going to start recognizing actors of color? Look at today's list. Not a single African-American nominee. We do have two Latin actors, Javier Bardem and Benicio Del Toro. Two people of color out of 20 is about par by recent Oscar standards, but there's an especially glaring omission this year.

The Chinese-language "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" garnered 10 nominations, second only to "Gladiator," which earned 12. Yet not a single one of those nominations was for any of the actors in "Crouching Tiger." You had excellent possibilities: Stars Chow Yun-Fat, Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen turned in nomination-worthy efforts. But the big crime is the lack of a best actress nod for star Michelle Yeoh. The favorite is Julia Roberts in this category, but Yeoh deserved to be acknowledged: Seldom in popular cinema has an action hero also shown such nuance and depth of character.

But is this a question of race? Think I'm being oversensitive? You could argue that Oscar voters are unwilling to look at subtitled performances, but that wasn't the case for Roberto Benigni, who won best actor for "Life Is Beautiful."

Here, however, is the real clincher. The last time a movie got so many Oscar nominations without an actor nomination was Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor." That movie won nine Oscars, including best picture, yet no actor, including the film's titular star, John Lone, got nominated. (The only other similar case in Oscar history is "Gigi."but even then the academy gave a special award to star Maurice Chevalier.) Still think I'm paranoid? Only once has the academy honored an Asian actor, the late Haing S. Ngor, who won a supporting actor Oscar for "The Killing Fields."

It's clear the academy has a blind spot, opting for familiar types of actors in, Western settings. Overt racism is hard to argue, but a crime of omission is still damaging. Every year, the academy gets criticized for overlooking minorities, and every year, it proves it has failed to get the message. When is it finally going to wake up?

Doug Kim can be reached at dkim@seattletimes.com.

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