Sunday was an historic evening at the 93rd Academy Awards as major strides were made in celebrating diverse stories and talent at Hollywood’s big night.
Nomadland’s Chloé Zhao became only the second woman to ever win the Academy Award for best director since Kathryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker in 2010. Zhao, who was born in China, also becomes the first non-white woman to win best director. Prior to that, only five women had been nominated for best director at the Oscars: Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Bigelow and Greta Gerwig. In another landmark moment, Minari star Yuh-Jung Youn won best supporting actress and became the first Korean actor or actress to win an Oscar in the show’s history. The legendary Korean actress won for her role as the mischievous but wise grandmother Soon-ja in a drama about a Korean immigrant family living in America.
British actor Daniel Kaluuya was rewarded with the best supporting actor trophy for playing the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah. Kaluuya, who was born to Ugandan parents, completed the awards season sweep after winning the Golden Globe, BAFTA, SAG Award, and Critics’ Choice.
The night’s major upset came by way of the best actor category. Eighty-three-year-old Sir Anthony Hopkins was recognized for The Father, beating out the late Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom).
Other notable moments of the night included 89-year-old Ann Roth’s win for her costume design work on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, making her the oldest woman ever to win an Oscar. Ma Rainey’s Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson also became the first Black women to win the makeup and hairstyling Oscar together with Sergio Lopez-Rivera.
Oscars So White
These achievements come after years of controversy over racial and gender imbalance and a push to make the awards more inclusive. This year, nine of the 20 acting nominations went to people of color. This is a far cry from 2015 when the Academy Award nominations were announced and people were quick to notice the overwhelming lack of racial diversity among the nominees. One of those concerned onlookers was attorney-turned-diversity and inclusion advocate April Reign, who fired off a tweet accompanied by the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. The post gained traction, albeit from a humorous standpoint. But it was no laughing matter in 2016, when all 20 acting nominations went once again to an all-white group of actors. This opened a dialogue about the demographic composition of the Academy’s voting membership, the long-standing inequities in awards recognition, and on a larger scale, the paucity of true diverse representation in the Hollywood film industry. In response to the ‘whitewash’, some high-profile Black actors and filmmakers opted to skip that year’s ceremony including Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith.
The initial backlash prompted the Academy to invite a broader pool of 322 new members in June 2015. Later that year, then Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced the A2020 initiative with the goal of doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020. They exceeded that goal, going from a membership body that was 92% white and 75% male to double the number of active women members and triple the number of active members from underrepresented ethnic and racial communities. In September 2020, the Academy introduced a new set of inclusion standards that films need to meet to be nominated for best picture starting in 2024. Two of four thresholds must be met for consideration from categories including on-screen representation, creative leadership, industry access and opportunities, and audience development.
In the meantime, part of the increased diversity among Oscar nominees is also owed to more inclusion in film overall. Out of the eight best picture nominations, five were either fronted by a member from an underrepresented group, featured a major storyline related to an underrepresented group, or was directed by a member of an underrepresented community.
More diverse films are being made giving voters a more varied body of work to choose from. This is in keeping with UCLA’s annual Hollywood Diversity Report for 2021 which found that, “In 2020, people of color accounted for the majority of opening weekend, domestic box office for six of the top 10 films (ranked by global box office) and half of the box office for a seventh top 10 film.”
But diversity has not necessarily resulted in progress. In 2020, Korean film Parasite made history as the first non-English-language winner in the best picture category. Bong Joon Ho was only the second director to win an Oscar for a non-English film. The film scored a number of firsts including being the first Korean film to win for best international feature film and original screenplay. Parasite was also the first nominee from South Korea in all four categories it won and the first screenplay winner from Asia. But that success did not translate to the acting categories where the film did not earn any nominations. Criticism was also leveled at the Academy for snubbing Asian acting generally despite strong performances in the critically acclaimed The Farewell and seemingly perpetuating an old trope of Asians as proficient in technical roles.
The past few years have produced some major wins — Moonlight taking the best picture prize in 2017, Spike Lee finally getting Academy recognition with a best adapted screenplay award for BlacKkKlansman, Māori filmmaker Taika Waititi becoming the first indigenous man to win an Oscar, and Black Muslim Mahershala Ali winning an award two out of three years — but there is still a long way to go particularly for women and Latinx representation.
And while 2021’s history-making wins should be celebrated they are not necessarily an indicator of authentic change. In 2014, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave won best picture and best adapted screenplay, Lupita Nyong’o won best supporting actress for the same film, and Alfonso Cuarón nabbed Best Director for Gravity. Yet, #OscarsSoWhite kicked off the following year. And just a year after Mahershala Ali won best supporting actor for Green Book, Egyptian-American Rami Malek won best actor for Bohemian Rhapsody, and Regina King won best supporting actress for If Beale Street Could Talk, there was only one person of color nominated in the acting categories in 2020.