The 95th Oscars promised us “firsts” going in, with more Asian acting nominees (four) than we normally see in a single decade, let alone a year. But while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pat themselves on the back, the record-breaking wins and nominations reveal an obnoxious pattern.
Why, for instance, do we need 95 Acadamy Awards ceremonies to get one Asian winner for Best Actress? Racism is the clear reason, and it appears to still be a guiding motivation for the Academy, despite the window dressing.
I thought Everything Everywhere All At Once was the best picture of the year, and was glad to see it recognized as such. Spectacular editing, directing, and performances combined to tell this maximalist, multiverse story with a very human core. Using the full breadth of movie-magic tools, the film is still fundamentally about motherhood and specifically the mother-daughter relationship.
Since we all have feelings about mothers, the film is universal, but I’d particularly recommend it to Latinos who are immigrants or have them in their families. EEAAO captures some essential truths about border-crossing generations that resonate strongly.
Ke Huy Quan gives a beautiful, layered, romantic performance as the dad in the film, while Michelle Yeoh holds the complicated narrative together, embodying a difficult protagonist who in many ways is unlikeable even as she’s deeply lovable. The two actors deserved to win, having overcome nearly a century of stigma that continues to keep people of color from ascending the Oscar stage as often as they should. Yeoh was the first Asian woman to win the Best Actress award, becoming only the second woman of color to do so after Halle Berry, who was on hand Sunday for the moment.
Two women of color in nearly 100 years. Shameful.
Ruth E. Carter became the only Black woman to take home multiple statuettes—ever. She won for costume design for Wakanda Forever after also winning in the same category for the first Black Panther in 2018. And for those who don’t know, she’s been doing amazing work since the ’80s as a regular collaborator with Spike Lee.
It’s worth remembering that while we celebrated four Asian acting nominees —actors who, it should be pointed out, hail from the most populous continent on the planet by far— the tiny island country of Ireland boasted five nominees across the four acting categories and quite a few elsewhere.
So, yes, the Academy will offer crumbs to communities of color sometimes, letting a few win here and there, but never in proportion to our contributions and always accompanied by the message that we better not get our hopes too high. Last night, that reminder came in the form of another EEAAO win, for Jaime Lee Curtis in the Best Supporting Actress category.
Now, I love the film, and Curtis was good in it. But she gave arguably the fourth-best performance in the movie, behind Oscar-winning Yeoh and Quan and even Stephanie Hsu who was also nominated in the same category. Hsu’s role was more complex and her performance more varied and compelling, but no one expected her to win thanks to the awards-season precursor events that split the category between Curtis and one distinctively compelling nominee, Angela Bassett.
On top of Hsu’s snubbing, Bassett’s failure to capture the big award was for many viewers clear evidence that the playing field isn’t merely uneven, but rigged for well-connected white folks like Curtis. However kind and talented she may be, Curtis’ win has several question marks hanging over it: Was she picked because of her performance or because Academy voters could only stomach so many nominees of color? Did her famed pedigree —as she mentioned in her acceptance speech, both of her parents were nominated for Oscars— tip the scales in her favor?
The thing is, even as the nominations were announced, we realized something was off about this year’s awards ceremony. No Black actors were nominated in the lead categories, despite Viola Davis giving a superb performance in The Woman King and Danielle Deadwyler doing likewise in Till. And no women were nominated for best director at all.
The Academy continues to commit such slights against people of color, knowing they need us. That’s why they stacked the presenter lineup with notable Latinas: Eva Longoria, Salma Hayek, Zoe Saldaña, and Ariana DeBose. All spoke at the event, some as previous winners. They even had Pedro Pascal up there, appearing opposite the finale of his HBO juggernaut, The Last of Us. And they needed Rihanna’s performance to drive views and show their relative hipness.
But it’s all just crumbs in the hopes that we’ll continue to tune in to the yearly spectacle.
And the Oscars still matter, unfortunately. They can determine who gets what budget for their next film, what gets greenlit and what doesn’t.
They also mean a whole hell of a lot to their recipients. An Oscar means recognition by an artist’s peers at the highest levels, even if the white establishment continues to gatekeep those levels while professing otherwise.
That’s why it was so heartbreaking to see Angela Bassett’s face fall when her name wasn’t called, and why it was so satisfying to see Ke Huy Quan’s exuberance when his name was. That’s why I was rooting so hard for Yeoh and was so gratified by her speech.
But people of color being recognized for their artistic achievements shouldn’t be an outlier. We shouldn’t still be celebrating firsts. People of color are the norm, both nationally and globally, and until the Academy changes its ways and begins not only recognizing but truly honoring that fact, their little party can only mean so much.
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. Twitter: @cescobarandrade