Asian Performers Are Worthy of Oscar Recognition, Too (Guest Column)

As Dev Patel, an actor of Indian descent, vies for an Oscar nom for 'Lion,' Wayman Wong urges Academy members focused on diversity to remember that "the issue isn't just black and white."
Mark Rogers/The Weinstein Company
Dev Patel in 'Lion'

Wayman Wong has edited entertainment for 25 years at the New York Daily News. As a reporter, he broke the story about the Miss Saigon casting controversy in 1990. He's been a movie critic for the San Francisco Examiner and an award-winning playwright of Whiskey Chicken.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently welcomed 80 new members of Asian descent at a special and historic reception. That was an encouraging olive branch, especially in the wake of tasteless, anti-Asian jokes at the Oscars and the latest Hollywood controversies about diversity, whitewashing and racist ''yellow face'' casting decisions by major studios.

The Hollywood Reporter estimates there are about 250 Asians in the 7,000-member-plus Academy. And that marks progress in its nearly 90-year history. Only a few years ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that Academy membership was 94% white, 2% black and less than 2% Latino. As for Asians and Native Americans, they made up only .5% of Oscar voters. Not even 1%.

Too often, the issue of diversity in Hollywood focuses on only whites and blacks, leaving out Asians, Latinos and Native peoples. For some context, here's how Asian and Asian-American actors have been screwed by Academy voters ...

  • The Last Emperor (1987): 9 Oscar nominations; 9 wins, including best picture
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): 10 Oscar nominations; 4 wins, including best foreign language film
  • Memoirs of a Geisha (2005): 6 Oscar nominations; 3 wins
  • Letters From Iwo Jima (2006): 4 Oscar nominations; 1 win
  • Slumdog Millionaire (2008): 10 Oscar nominations; 8 wins, including best picture
  • Life of Pi (2012): 11 Oscar nominations; 4 wins

Except for Memoirs, all of these movies were up for the best picture Oscar. Between them, they account for 50 nominations and dozens of wins across a plethora of categories. And yet not one of their actors was even nominated — including John Lone, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Dev Patel, Freida Pinto and Suraj Sharma, each of whom received a BAFTA, Golden Globe, Critics' Choice, National Board of Review and/or SAG nom.

It's one thing if Academy voters don't nominate you because they haven't seen your picture, but what are the odds that they see your film, love it and still skip an entire minority group of actors?

Patel is now getting Oscar buzz for Lion. But when he was in Slumdog Millionaire, he was up for the best actor BAFTA Award and the best supporting actor SAG Award, and won Critics' Choice and National Board of Review awards. Still, Academy voters ignored him.

At January's Sundance Film Festival, Korean-American actor Joe Seo made his feature film debut in Andrew Ahn's indie Spa Night, and earned a special jury prize for his breakthrough performance. But will Seo be remembered later in the year by any critics' groups, let alone at the Independent Spirit Awards or the Oscars?

The last Asian to win the best supporting actor Oscar was Haing S. Ngor, for The Killing Fields, in 1985. The last Asian to win the best supporting actress Oscar was Miyoshi Umeki, for Sayonara, in 1958. Ben Kingsley, who is half-Indian, is the first and only actor of Asian descent to win the best actor Oscar, for Gandhi, in 1983, and remains the only one nominated to this day. No Asian has ever won the best actress Oscar, and you have to go back more than 80 years to find its only nominee: Merle Oberon, for 1935's Dark Angel, who was, few people knew during her lifetime, half-Indian.

Asian-American acting pioneers, like Anna May Wong, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and James Shigeta, a Golden Globe winner, never received Oscar recognition. And, to add insult to injury, more white performers have won lead acting Oscars for playing Asians in "yellow face" — such as Luise Rainer, for 1937's The Good Earth, and Yul Brynner, for 1956's The King and I — than actual Asians.

So let's applaud the Academy for welcoming more Asians into its ranks. But its overall membership needs to see Asian performers as worthy of recognition. Diversity comes in shades of yellow and brown, too. The issue isn't just black and white.

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