Even With an Asian Best Actress Win, Are The Oscars Still So White?

Adaora Elliott

On the 12th of March, Michelle Yeoh accepted the Academy Award for Best Actress for Everything Everywhere All at Once at the Oscars. While many have claimed that the Oscars have become more diverse, Yeoh was the first Asian woman to win this award in its 95-year history. Adaora explores whether Yeoh’s win highlights changing views in the industry.

I’m sure some of us remember the #OscarsSoWhite movement of 2015-2016, made popular by activist April Reign. After all, all 20 acting nominations were announced and attributed to only white performers for the second year in a row, even though there had been many great and talented performances by actors of colour. Consequently, this led to a boycott of the Oscars by industry giants such as Spike Lee, Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith. This movement coinciding with the anti-Asian racism movement #WhiteWashedOut and the #TimesUp/#MeToo movements made it clear that the Oscars had a problem acknowledging people outside of white men. 

The thought at the time was that these issues in diverse nominations were caused by a lack of diversity in the voting body, made up of white men. However, after pushing to diversify the voting body and enrolling a 2020 class of voters who were 45% women, 36% ethnic minorities and 49% international and going above and beyond their original goal, it is clear that there are still diversity issues.

The prevailing theme of this year’s award season has been actors not previously acknowledged either getting a second chance or a chance to shine. This included #Brenaissance seeing the return of Brendon Fraser’s popularity, Ke Huy Quan making a comeback to the American acting industry after over 20 years behind the camera, and of course, Michelle Yeoh getting her first Oscar nomination and win.

People cite the fact that Yeoh is only the second woman of colour to win Best Actress in 95 years as a travesty, but these kinds of stats are not uncommon. The same year, we had the first Black woman to win two Oscars (to costume designer Ruth E. Carter for both Black Panther movies), and Quan was the second man of Asian descent to ever win Best Actor.

This is how people like Bassett and Yeoh go their whole lives without winning an Oscar

It was great to see Angela Bassett receive her second nomination for her role in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) after an entire career of hits. However, the discourse surrounding the Best Supporting Actress nominations speaks to the problems that still exist in the Academy. Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Stephanie Hsu were also nominated alongside Bassett, with Curtis winning.

Curtis is a great actress who should have won an academy award long before this but a popular opinion amongst general audiences is that her Oscar win this year was more of a lifetime achievement award rather than awarding her for her performance in this film. Correcting previous Oscar mistakes is good, but not at the expense of acknowledging another great actress here and now, especially a young Asian-American actress. This is how people like Bassett and Yeoh go their whole lives without winning an Oscar despise giving Oscar-worthy performances.

The fact that more people of colour are winning these categories now shows that there has been a positive shift in attitudes when it comes to acknowledging diverse films and talent, yet there are still a ways to go. Halle Berry is the only other woman of colour and the only Black woman to win Oscars’ Best Actress for Monster’s Ball (2001).

No one was surprised when an anonymous Academy voter came out with a slurry of patronising comments

This disparity was made abundantly clear by this year’s Oscar snubs which included Nope (2022) by Jordon Peele, The Women King (2022) starring Viola Davis and Till (2022) starring Danielle Deadwyler which was ostensibly Oscar bait and yet failed to be recognised in a single category. Despite actors of colour getting more recognition, Black people still seem to be getting the Shaft in these categories.

Many films got snubbed at the Oscars this year, not receiving a single nomination but for critically acclaimed Black movies like Till, Nope and The Women King alongside the history of discrimination within the Oscars, people often question why. No one was surprised when an anonymous Academy voter came out with a slurry of patronising comments to justify why there were no nominations for these films. Comments included “Viola Davis and the lady director [most likely Gina Prince-Bythewood, director of Women King] need to sit down, shut up, and relax. You didn’t get a nomination – a lot of movies don’t get nominations., Viola, you have one or two Oscars, you’re doing fine.” This voter later admitted to not having watched The Women King so it’s hard to believe him when he says “we voted, and we voted for the five we thought were best.” 

The anonymous voter lambasted ‘woke’ culture for trying to force Black movies into the nomination but as Moonlight (2016) screenwriter and director Barry Jenkins has said in response to #OscarsSoWhite, “It wasn’t about promoting diversity for diversity’s sake, it was about correcting a blind spot — the artists of merit have always been there.”

This is a prevailing problem for acclaimed Black actors

Even outside the awards system, marginalised actors do not get the same recognition. Djimon Hounsou has been nominated for 2 Academy Awards and yet still only plays bit parts as sidekicks, henchmen and side characters in big movies, whilst also not getting the pay he deserves. He said, “I’ve come up in the business with some people who are absolutely well off and have very little of my accolades. So I feel cheated… in terms of finances and in terms of the workload”.

Especially when he had three roles as slaves in the space of five years or hears when people lowball him with the general sentiment of “‘We only have this much for the role, but we love you so much and we really think you can bring so much.'” This is a prevailing problem for acclaimed Black actors, “Viola Davis said it beautifully: she’s won an Oscar, she’s won an Emmy, she’s won a Tony [she has since won a Grammy] and she still can’t get paid.” 

With the rise in awareness of these biases and the growing diversity of the film industry behind the camera, among producers and within award voting bodies, these things are bound to improve. As of right now, we’re not there yet. Michelle Yeoh’s win doesn’t spell the end of racism in the film industry.

Adaora Elliott

Featured image courtesy of Mirko Fabian via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In-article video courtesy of 1 of A24 via YouTube.com. No changes were made to these videos.

In-article video courtesy 2 of Marvel Entertainment via YouTube.com. No changes were made to these videos.

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