There Were Lots Of History-Making Oscar Nominations, Yet There’s Still Work To Do

After years of little to no progress, the academy nominated a record-breaking nine actors of color, among many "firsts."

Having come to expect disappointment on Oscar nominations morning, it was surprising to discover that this year’s nominations were ... mostly good? After years of a lack of diversity, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Monday recognized a record number of actors of color — nine, or nearly half of the 20 acting nominees — compared to just one last year (Best Actress nominee Cynthia Erivo).

And encouragingly, the nominated actors primarily received recognition for performances and films that were multilayered and did not make their racial identities the central plot point. Among the acting nominees of color, six were Black, setting a record for the most Black actors nominated in a single year.

Some of the morning’s “firsts”:

  • “Minari” star Steven Yeun is the first Asian American actor ever nominated for Best Actor.

  • “Sound of Metal” star Riz Ahmed became the first Muslim actor ever nominated for Best Actor.

  • Ahmed and Yeun both earning nominations marks the first time multiple actors of Asian descent have been recognized in that category in the same year. In addition, legendary South Korean actor Youn Yuh-Jung received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for “Minari.” All three nominations are an encouraging sign that the academy is trying to correct the long history of Asian actors being historically underrepresented at the Oscars. Even when Asian-led and Asian-directed films are nominated for or win major awards, such as last year’s Best Picture winner “Parasite,” the actors in those films are rarely, if ever, recognized for their work — further marginalizing Asian actors in Hollywood.

  • Viola Davis is the first Black woman to receive multiple Best Actress nominations in the awards’ history, scoring her second for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” after being nominated for 2011’s “The Help.” She has now been nominated for four acting Oscars and has won once (Best Supporting Actress for 2016’s “Fences”), making her the most nominated Black actress in academy history.

  • For the first time in the 93-year history of the Oscars, more than one woman was nominated for Best Director in the same year: “Nomadland” director Chloé Zhao and “Promising Young Woman” director Emerald Fennell. Zhao also became the first woman of color and first Asian woman ever nominated, and one of just a handful of people to receive a whopping four nominations in a single year (for directing, writing, producing and editing “Nomadland”).

  • “Minari” is the first Best Picture nominee produced and directed by Asian American creatives (writer-director Lee Isaac Chung scored nominations for both directing and writing, and producer Christina Oh received a nomination for producing).

  • “Judas and the Black Messiah” marks the first time an all-Black producing team (Shaka King, Ryan Coogler and Charles D. King) was at the helm of a Best Picture nominee.

Monday’s slate of nominations is an encouraging sign that the academy’s public reckoning with inclusion and representation and its efforts to increase the diversity of its voting body are heading in the right direction. However, it cannot rest on its laurels because we’ve seen this movie before. Progress has often ebbed and flowed, inching forward some years, only to move backward in others. For instance, in the 1990s and early 2000s, there were several years when multiple actors of color were nominated. Yet, 2015 and 2016 brought two consecutive years of #OscarsSoWhite, when zero of the 20 acting nominees were people of color.

Even on Monday, for all of the signs of progress, there were some pretty glaring omissions and head-scratching choices, too. “Judas and the Black Messiah” stars Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya are arguably both the lead characters of the film. Yet both received nominations for Best Supporting Actor — suggesting that somehow, the film does not have lead characters.

In a year full of formidable work by Black directors, none received nominations for Best Director, a category with a history of overlooking Black filmmakers. Only six Black directors have ever been nominated in the category: John Singleton, Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele and Spike Lee. None have won, though McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” and Jenkins’ “Moonlight” each won Best Picture.

The one thing that has really changed over the years: The public pressure on the academy and the film industry at large has never been greater. In the six years since activist April Reign created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, more and more people have been holding the academy’s feet to the fire each awards season. Moviegoers will continue to demand that what they see on-screen reflects the world around them.

There’s still a lot of work to be done in representing a full range of identities, such as correcting the dearth of Latinx, Native, Indigenous, and Pacific Islander representation at the Oscars, increasing diversity within racial and ethnic groups, as well as improving the kinds of stories told about LGBTQ identity and disability.

In addition, there’s still a lot of work to be done in maximizing diversity and representation both in front of and behind the camera. But more and more people demanding change will hopefully help make sure there are fewer and fewer “firsts” to report on Oscar nominations morning.

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