Oscars: Diverse Field Sees Asian Actors Finally Break Through

Last summer, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it had met its A2020 targets to double the numbers of women and people of color in its membership. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean gender and racial parity have been achieved, the first post-A2020 yield of nominations are promising.

For the 93rd Academy Awards, performers of color comprise the majority in both actor categories, with Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and Steven Yeun (Minari) in the lead race and One Night in Miami‘s Leslie Odom Jr. competing with Judas and the Black Messiah duo Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield in supporting. Ahmed is the fourth Muslim actor (after Omar Sharif, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Mahershala Ali) to receive an Oscar nomination, and the first in the best actor category, of which the Korean-born, Michigan-raised Yeun is the first Asian American nominee.

Yeun and co-star Youn Yuh-jung also finally snapped Hollywood’s “bamboo ceiling” (a phrase originated by leadership strategist Jane Hyun to describe the difficulty Asian Americans in the corporate world face in breaking through to senior executive roles). The disheartening streak had heretofore seen Asian actors shut out of recognition from their otherwise decorated films (Parasite, The Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The Last Emperor all garnered multiple Oscar nominations, including best picture, without a single acting nod). A year after Korea’s Parasite swept the Academy Awards (except in the acting categories, of course), the two have become the first performers born in that country to earn Oscar recognition.

Related Video

Minari also makes producer Christina Oh the first Asian American woman to receive a nomination for best picture, a category that also saw history made with Judas‘ all-Black producing trio of Shaka King, Charles D. King and Ryan Coogler. The latter film’s additional nominations for H.E.R., Tiara Thomas and D’Mile (in original song) and Keith and Kenny Lucas (nominated alongside King and Will Berson in original screenplay) also propelled Judas to break The Color Purple‘s record for most Black nominees from a single film, with 10.

With her fourth nomination, best actress nominee Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s) is now the most nominated Black actress in Oscar history, and the only one with two lead acting nods. She’ll compete in a category that also includes The United States vs. Billie Holliday‘s Andra Day. And amid increasing amplification of incidents in which Black performers are forced to style themselves (or endure inexpert treatment), the anointing of Ma Rainey’s Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson as the first Black nominees in makeup and hairstyling is especially significant.

Minari filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung, who picked up an additional nod this morning for original screenplay, becomes the second Asian American (after The Sixth Sense‘s M. Night Shyamalan) nominated for best director. And then there is Nomadland‘s Chloé Zhao, the Chinese filmmaker who in addition to best picture and adapted screenplay nominations is the first woman of color ever nominated for best director. Between her and Promising Young Woman‘s Emerald Fennell, the roster of Oscar-nominated female directors has instantly expanded by 40 percent.

Because of the ongoing pandemic, the Academy Awards will take place April 25 at downtown Los Angeles’ Union Station and Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre and air live on ABC.

March 15, 7:49 a.m. Added an explanation of the origins of the phrase “bamboo ceiling.”
8:11 a.m. Removed reference to “bamboo ceiling” in the headline.
11:23 a.m. Added fact about Judas and the Black Messiah‘s record-breaking 10 Black nominees.

Related Stories