HOLLYWOOD -- The world is opening up, and it's taking Hollywood with it.
Almost a year after the racially tinged Crash scored a best picture upset at the Academy Awards, deep explorations of nonwhite cultures have dominated the silver screen as have ethnic performers who have delivered penetrating portrayals.
It's an expanding vision of storytelling that not only has taken audiences to Uganda, Morocco, South Africa, Spain, Japan and beyond, but also into areas of minority American culture.
Robyn Slovo, a producer of the South African drama Catch a Fire, says of Hollywood, "There is much more global awareness, and people are really interested in stories outside of the West."
Many of those stories have been among the industry's best told, earning Oscar buzz.
"This happens to be a year where people are appreciating films that spotlight diversity, and they're embracing the concept of diversity more," said Jarvee Hutcherson, head of the Multicultural Motion Picture Association, a 1,400-member group that promotes diversity in film.
This expanding of boundaries has led to meatier roles for minority actors and actresses, said Stephanie Allain, a key force behind last year's Hustle & Flow, which scored a best actor nomination for Terrence Howard.
"More minority actors have gotten more opportunities for better roles," Allain said. "There hasn't been that much progress with minorities behind the camera."
Films with large foreign or minority casts that are strong best picture contenders include Volver, Mel Gibson's Apocalypto and Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima.
Dreamgirls is considered a front-runner for several nominations, with buzz surrounding Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Anika Noni Rose. Jennifer Hudson, a former American Idol contestant, is considered almost a sure bet to secure a best supporting actress nomination.
Favorites in the actress race include Penelope Cruz in Volver. The best actor arena has several minority contenders - Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, Derek Luke in Catch a Fire, Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness and Michael Pena in World Trade Center.