First of all, huge congratulations to The Sound of Metal’s Michelle Couttolenc, Carlos Cortés Navarrete, and Jaime Baksht, three of the five-part team that won the 2021 Oscar for Sound. They also were the only Latinx winners at the Academy Awards last night.
There was never going to be a lot of Latinxs there. We didn’t exactly have a lot of movies, critically acclaimed or otherwise (remember, we’re vastly underrepresented on screen). Of the 216 people nominated, only six were Latinx. So it makes sense that only three of the 46 winners would be Latinx. To do some quick math for you, Latinxs are almost 20% of the U.S. population. We were 2.8% of the nominees this year and 6.5% of the winners. The chasm is wide and I can only hope that next year will be better with West Side Story and In the Heights coming out.
But I’m not willing to say it was a bad night for the Latinx community. Yes, the ceremony was weird. It wasn’t just the pandemic (who’s not used to social distancing and video calls at this point?), it was how they played with the order of the awards. Directing was early. Best Picture didn’t end the night, Best Actor in a Leading Role did with Best Actress second-to-last for good measure. And it didn’t work. The whole thing lost its narrative and barrier-breaking winner Chloé Zhao, who should have been the star of the show, was somehow not given the defining moment.
And yet, Chloé Zhao did win for best director, only the second woman ever and the first woman of color. Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson became the first Black women ever to win for hair and make-up, thanks to their outstanding work on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Yuh-Jung Youn became the first Korean to win an acting Oscar, a particularly notable feat given last year’s snub of the entire cast of Best Picture winner Parasite. Daniel Kaluuya took home a statue for best supporting actor, H.E.R. won best song, and the list of of-color winners goes on. We even got a spotlight on ability, thanks to The Sound of Metal, Crip Camp, Feeling Through, and Marlee Matlin presenting. In fact, as the show went on, I got the distinct feeling that we were seeing a different set of Oscar winners this year: more women, more Black people, Asian folks, non-English speakers.
The Hollywood Reporter did the numbers and 54% of this year’s winners were white men. So, sure it was a partial victory. With such outstanding Black cinema, it felt wrong to give both the leading actor statues to white people who’ve both won before, however great they were in their particular roles. We know it’s as much about politics as it is about performance and the politics here were stodgy at best, racist at worst. Do better, Academy
But I think Latinxs should take heart. More wins for people of color, particularly women, bode well. They help break the narrative that only white men matter, only their stories reach the heights of artistry. We know that’s not true and the Academy had a chance to show that they know it too. They could have gone so much further, following the SAG awards in selecting all people of color for this year’s acting awards.
Chadwick Boseman, Riz Ahmed, Steven Yuen, Andra Day, and Viola Davis were all right there, nominated in the top categories. But they didn’t and even if they had, there’d still be decades of white supremacy to counteract. Still, I can’t help but think that this year’s winners, however imperfect, help open the door for more of humanity to be seen and recognized, understood and celebrated.
And I’d call that a good night for Latinxs after all.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. You can follow her on Twitter: @cescobarandrade.