This year's Oscar nominees make up the whitest group in years, but panelists at a discussion on the black experience in Hollywood were upbeat Wednesday.
"With the advent of technology, there's so many ways to get your stories out there," said Don Cheadle, the actor and one of the producers of "Crash," which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2006.
A Feb. 11 New York Times story raised anew the issue of race in the movie business, noting that 2010 "was perhaps the whitest year for Hollywood since the post-Richard Pryor, pre-Spike Lee 1980s."
Indeed, none of this year's Academy Award nominees for best actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress or director is black.
But while panelists said that black actors continue to face obstacles — and that Hollywood continues to segregate "black movies" from other films — they were generally optimistic. And they said the way to succeed in the entertainment industry is to prepare, work hard, have faith and put ego aside.
Cheadle advised actors to write and do anything else they can.
"You need to be a hyphenate," he said. "You need to be multifaceted in this business…Go buy an $800 camera and make a movie. There's no impediment now."
The goal of the panel discussion, sponsored by the Screen Actors Guild National Ethnic Employment Opportunities Committee, was to celebrate Black History Month and to motivate actors.
"We want you to leave inspired. We want you to get yourselves into a whole new space about who you are as creative artists and actors," SAG National Executive Director David White told more than 250 people at the organization's headquarters.
Panelist Taraji P. Henson, who was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar for her role in 2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," expressed frustration with the notion of "black movies."
"I want the industry to stop with the labeling the movies," she said. "I don't say, 'Hey! Go with me to see this white movie."
The panel also included actress-producer Marla Gibbs, Academy Award-nominated director John Singleton and former Casting Society of America president Chemin Sylvia Bernard, and was moderated by Emmy winner Wayne Brady,
The group agreed that despite advances, black performers face unique difficulties. Before the session began, Co-Chair Vivicca Whitsett told TheWrap that she recently booked a guest spot on a television program, but that her role was cut when producers decided that it didn't make sense to have an African American person in the scene.
"The scene was an airport in Minneapolis," she said.
And Bernard, responding to a question, told the audience that she has seen a troubling change over the past few years.
"I have a theory that has not failed me," she said. "I watch commercials. Commercials will always be the harbinger."
"If you look at commercials right now, you don't really see us very much, do you?" she asked.
But the panel, while officially about the black experience in Hollywood, sounded universal themes.
They talked about the importance of passion and of being authentic — of setting out to be actors rather than to be famous.
In Hollywood, Singleton reminded the audience, "you're only as good as the last thing you did."
And he encouraged people to follow what they know is good.
"If you really feel passionate about something, you have to defend it with your heart and soul," he said. "any people tell you that you're not going to be able to realize your vision as an artist or or whatever, you have to defend that."
Yet he warned that "if you're in the vanity of it, just to be famous, you're in trouble, because this is a business that if you don't come into it right, and you don't act right, it can steal your soul."
He was picking up a theme of Henson's:
"This is a business where you're constantly having to prove yourself," she said. "I'm never settled. I'm always pushing myself."
She noted that even after she was nominated for an Academy Award, she continued to audition for roles, even paying for a flight to New York.
She said that her goal isn't to get a particular part. It's to create a body of work.
"Usually for black actresses, unfortunately, they hit a peak and whatever happened to them. So the people I studied — and how I hope God uses me to change things up a bit — is to be one of the pioneers that lasted and is still working, and when I'm long gone and dead, people are still talking about my body of work. When you ask for that, you're asking for longevity. And when you ask for that, it's an uphill battle."
Gibbs, who produced and starred in the NBC series "227," and is perhaps best known for her role as Florence in the series "The Jeffersons," told the audience that she took classes, workshopped and got the best training she could.
"It was about working," she said. "You keep moving and you keep the faith and you keep moving."