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The Academy's Baby Steps

The Academy's Baby Steps
a personal essay by Yanitta Iew

Dear Asian Youth,

Bong Joon-Ho’s historic win in the Academy Awards in 2020 for his film, “Parasite,” was a memorable and triumphant moment for us Asians. I remember grinning from ear to ear as each of the cast and crew stood on the stage of the Dolby Theater, holding the golden statues they rightfully deserved. Being the first film to bring home both the Best International Feature and Best Picture awards last year, “Parasite” has paved the way for Asians in film for the years to come.

On March 15th, 2021, the nominees for the 93rd Academy Awards were announced. I sat there in front of my laptop screen, staring at the golden font shining with names of various films.

“And Yuh-Jung Youn in Minari,” announced Priyanka Chopra Jonas in her beautiful accent.

The moment I heard the nominees for the first category, Actress in a Supporting Role, I knew that this was going to be another year for us Asians in film. No, not only for us. I have a feeling this could be the most diverse Oscars in the history of the Academy Awards.

Of the 93 years the Academy Awards has been held, there has been an obvious streak of lacking diversity in each year’s list of nominees. For the non-acting categories, only 19 percent of the nominees have been women. And only 2.3 percent of the Best Picture nominees were directed by women. That’s 12 films in 93 years. Only one woman has ever won an Oscar for best directing, which was Kathryn Bigelow in 2010. And merely 15 Black actors have taken home the golden statue. There have been no Asian Americans nominated for Best Actor until this year.

However, during the past decade, the Academy is moving closer to bridging the gap between People of Color and privileged White males. For example, more women of color have won in the Best Supporting Actress category: Jennifer Hudson, Penélope Cruz, Monique, Octavia Spencer and Lupita Nyong’o. Ang Lee, a Taiwanese director, took home a golden statue for directing “Life of Pi” in 2012, and Alejandro G. Iñárritu also won two consecutive awards for directing “Birdman” and “The Revenant”,followed by “Parasite”'s historic win in 2020.

This year is the year for us Asians, People of Color and women. Nearly half of the acting nominees are POC, and there were 70 women nominated in total. This is the most diverse list of nominations in Oscar history.

Let’s get to know the diverse ensemble of the 2021 Oscar nominees.

Firstly, Youn Yuh-Jung was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Minari. Steven Yeun also became the first Asian American to be nominated for Best Actor. Riz Ahmed was the first Best Actor nominee of Pakistani descent. Chloe Zhao is in the list of nominees for Best Director in “Nomadland”, and she is the first few women and first Asian woman to be nominated as well. She is also the first woman to be nominated for 4 categories in one year. Lee Isaac Chung was also one of the Best Director nominees for “Minari”. Furthermore, Chung and Zhao combined mark the first time two Asians are nominated for that category.

Also, this is the first year when two women are nominated for Best Director with Emerald Fennell in “Promising Young Woman” alongside Chloe Zhao in “Nomadland.” For Best International Feature Film, Derek Tsang is nominated for the film “Better Days.” Furthermore, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson are the first Black female nominees for best makeup and hairstyling for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” And “Judas and the Black Messiah” is the first Best Picture nominee with Shaka King, Charles D. King and Ryan Cooler (an all Black producing team).

Although the road should have been paved much earlier, “Parasite” had set an example for other Asian directors and filmmakers in the film industry. This year marks history for Asians and People of Color in film, and we are proud to finally be represented in the Academy Awards.

However, these statistics and lists still do not resemble the diversity of the general public. It took the Academy 93 years to appropriately recognize filmmakers of color. This is merely a step the Academy and the film industry should have taken years ago. Filmmakers of color, women and those identifying as LGBTQ+ must be more frequently nominated and must take home a golden statue more often. Furthermore, not only should these films be celebrated in the Academy Awards, but they should also be recognized in the media. More opportunities should also be given to minority filmmakers to continue this streak of diversity.

They finally did. And we have the right to be proud of the achievements of fellow People of Color in the film industry and the Oscars, but this tiny achievement can’t render us completely complacent. The Academy is still taking its baby steps, though that process is taking longer than expected. It is up to us to continue promoting diversity and represent the prism of society in each and every industry.

I’m looking forward to streaming tears of happiness while watching the Academy Awards live on April 25th. Let’s hope this year will further pave the way for another historic win for People of Color.

- Yanitta Iew

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