An African-American actor nominated for his portrayal of a Ugandan madman. A best-picture category that includes a movie filmed in Berber, Arabic, Spanish and Japanese (and another shot almost exclusively in Japanese). A Mexican director whose work could win seven awards.

After frequently being dubbed too-white and too-clubby, the Oscars this year enthusiastically embraced diversity: The list of nominees for the 79th Academy Awards, announced yesterday, is the most diverse in its history. Favorites in three of the four acting categories are African-American. Three of the year's most nominated films are the work of Mexican directors. Of the 20 acting nominations, eight were given to actors who are either black, Asian or who hail from Spanish-speaking countries. And, in another form of diversity, three of the five nominees in the best-actress category - including the favorites - are over 50.

"Having almost half the acting nominations go to minority-group members is clearly a sign of change, and an enormously welcome one," says David Sterritt, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics. "There have always been huge amounts of talent in these communities, but most of it was automatically passed over for far too many years."

The news yesterday morning that the most nominated film - Bill Condon's musical Dreamgirls, with eight - did not make the cut for either best picture or best director, created a flurry of buzz. But Dreamgirls' failure was quickly overshadowed by the success of other films from groups traditionally ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has been handing out Oscars since 1929.

Mexican writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel, a film of global interconnectedness where a tragedy in one part of the world leads to similar tragedies in another, was the second most-nominated film, with seven, including best picture. Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness), Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls), Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond) and Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) all received acting nominations. So did Mexico's Adriana Barraza and Japan's Rinko Kikuchi (both for Babel), as well as Spain's Penelope Cruz (Volver).

Even Clint Eastwood got into the act; his Letters From Iwo Jima, which tells the story of the pivotal World War II battle not only from the Japanese point of view, but in Japanese, was among the best picture nominees. Also in the running are Martin Scorsese's drama of honor and intrigue among the Boston mob, The Departed; the dysfunctional family comedy Little Miss Sunshine (whose 10-year-old star, Abigail Breslin, is up for supporting actress); and Stephen Frears' look at Elizabeth II, struggling to understand her subjects' emotional reaction to the death of Princess Diana in The Queen.

Inarritu, Eastwood, Scorsese and Frears all were nominated for best director, along with Paul Greengrass for United 93, a chilling dramatization of the flight that crashed into a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001.

Hard to believe it was only four years ago that Halle Berry (Monster's Ball) was grabbing headlines for being the first African-American to win the best actress Oscar. She and Denzel Washington (Training Day), who was named best actor that same year, brought the total number of Oscars given to African-Americans since the first statues were awarded in 1929 to eight. The number rose to 10 two years ago, when Jamie Foxx (Ray) was named best actor and Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby) won for best supporting actor.

Come Oscar night Feb. 25, that number could easily leap to 13. Whitaker is the early favorite to win for best actor, thanks to his charismatically terrifying turn as Ugandan strongman Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. The other actor nominees are Leonardo DiCaprio as a South African mercenary with a developing conscience in Blood Diamond; Ryan Gosling as an inspirational but drug-addicted teacher in Half Nelson; Peter O'Toole as a lecherous stage actor lusting after a teenager in Venus; and Will Smith as a struggling single father in The Pursuit of Happyness.

In the supporting categories, two actors from Dreamgirls - Murphy and Hudson - are near-prohibitive favorites. Both actors, along with Whitaker, were awarded Golden Globes earlier this month by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, an often-reliable bellwether of Oscar gold.

"It looks like the academy is rethinking the way it looks at performances," says Donald Bogle, author of Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. "For a long time, the Oscars have been lily-white. Now, not only do we get African-American nominees, but we get the other nominees as well."

Paul Heyde, archivist for the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University, praised yesterday's nominations as "continuing to build on the success that African-American actors have been achieving over the past several years. I'm glad to see the academy recognizing their achievement."

The academy also embraced actresses of a certain age, at least partially dispelling the notion that good movie parts do not exist for women over 40. Helen Mirren, 61, is favored for her portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen. Her competition includes Judi Dench, 72, as a conniving schoolteacher in Notes on a Scandal, and Meryl Streep, 57, as a fashion editor from Hades in The Devil Wears Prada. The other nominees are relative youngsters: 32-year-old Penelope Cruz, as an abused woman helped along by her dead mother in Volver, and Kate Winslet, 31, as an impetuously frisky wife and mother in Little Children.

This year's nominations list also has a distinctly south-of-the-border flavor. In addition to the best picture and best director nods for Inarritu's Babel, the film was singled out for its editing, musical score and original screenplay. It also earned supporting actress nominations for two members of its international cast: Barraza, as an immigrant Mexican nanny torn between loyalty to her boss and her family, and Kikuchi as a deaf Japanese teenager who mistakenly sees her blossoming sexuality as a way to finally communicate with the rest of the world.

The work of two other Mexican writer-directors also figures prominently in this year's competition. Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth received six nominations, including best foreign language film, while Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men earned three. Though neither earned directing nods, both were nominated for their screenplays.

"This is an unimaginable experience for me," del Toro said in a press release. "It is specially beautiful to share this moment with my dear friends Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. This is an unprecedented representation of Spanish-language filmmakers and actors."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com