At last year’s Oscar ceremonies, George Clooney incurred the wrath of AIDS activists by proclaiming, “[Hollywood was] the first to shout about AIDS when it was just a whisper.” Community leaders retorted that Hollywood’s only big-budget brush with AIDS, Philadelphia, arrived 12 years into the epidemic—and that a sequel seems unlikely. So when Clooney took the stage at last night’s Oscars, handing a trophy to Dreamgirl Jennifer Hudson, many wondered what he’d say next. George didn’t mention AIDS—opting for a jokey reference to Al Gore, whose global-warming crusade is this year’s Big Hollywood Shout. But couldn’t there be room for another? Will AIDS stay a whisper in Tinseltown?

People living with HIV, if they were exceedingly optimistic, may have found small signs of hope in last night’s Oscar telecast—which host Ellen DeGeneres dubbed “the most [racially] diverse ever.” But it seemed fitting that as HIV itself diversifies and American political leaders spin the disease as a foreign nuisance, the show’s only mention of it came from China. The Blood of Yingzhou District, a 40-minute film tracking the virus in a rural province, was nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject.

As the contenders were announced, a split-second clip declared that 75,000 children in China had been orphaned by AIDS. Yet when Gael Garcia Bernal opened the envelope and named Yingzhou the winner, the polite filmmakers used the podium to thank their collaborators, not to rally the audience.

That audience had already been told, by no less than Leonardo DiCaprio as he condemned greenhouse gases, that “The American film industry has always taken its [obligations to] society very seriously.” And in accepting the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her work with cancer charities, former Paramount head Sherry Lansing had said that in Hollywood, “We may not always agree…but one of our great strengths is that we care.” (Elizabeth Taylor—who won the same award in 1992 for her work with AIDS charities and gave one of that decade’s memorable acceptance speeches—suddenly seemed like a very distant memory.) As the evening wore on, it seemed as if activists’ only option might be to write down the stars’ bold pronouncements—and shout them back to them in a future bid for help.

A few hours before Beyonce took the stage to perform, the actress who originated Ms. Knowles’ Dreamgirls character, Deena Jones, in the Broadway production talked exclusively with POZ.  Sheryl Lee Ralph, who sang “One Night Only” in 1,247 performances, said, “We started in 1981, when AIDS first hit. It decimated us, and nobody knew what was happening at first. We lost one third of our cast and crew—hair, makeup, everything. Every day you came to work you didn’t know who would be gone next.”

One prominent casualty was its director and co-choreographer, Michael Bennett, who died in 1987. “But now I hope people realize,” Ralph said, “that the same stigma that applied to a gay white man with AIDS like Michael Bennett now applies to African-American women, who are at the heart of Dreamgirls.”

Dreamgirls unfolds in a Motown-ish past, a time without AIDS. But Ms. Ralph, who travels the country with a one-woman show about African-American women’s experience of the disease, says films like Dreamgirls can be used to spark a conversation. “It’s just not being done,” she says. “And meanwhile AIDS is the No. 1 killer of young African-American women.”

In a year when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was praised for nominating a record number of people of color in the acting categories (Forest Whitaker won for playing Idi Amin, the dictator of Uganda, a country that would be ravaged by AIDS after his reign), is there reason to hope that it will next year nominate stories and subjects that address African-Americans and AIDS?

Of course, AMPAS can’t nominate films that don’t exist. But by appealing to Hollywood’s love of a good cause—and its even stronger love of self-congratulation—perhaps the academy (and the producers) can build a legacy. A legacy far longer than, in Dreamgirls parlance, one night only.