Around this time last year, I wrote a piece about my frustrations with the Oscars for snubbing great actors and directors yet again, as well as my hopes for who would win. The ceremony ended up making history and was touted as a groundbreaking season for the Academy. And unfortunately, even after 92 years of awards, it was. It was groundbreaking that a foreign-language film won Best Picture. Groundbreaking that Bong Joon Ho beat out Scorsese and Tarantino as Best Director. Groundbreaking.
Even with these victories, historic and necessary, the Oscars will get to run with the term “groundbreaking” so long as they preserve their white, masculine foundation. I want an Oscars season where there are no more firsts. One where it isn’t surprising for anyone other than a white man to win — or even be nominated for — Best Director.
Putting “the first” before a demographic should embarrass Hollywood, but instead they flaunt it in garish displays and headlines, all in the name of progress.
Flash forward to the 93rd Academy Awards in April 2021. Steven Yeun and Riz Ahmed, the first Asian American and the first Muslim to be nominated for Best Actor, respectively; Chloé Zhao, the first woman of color to be nominated for and the first to win Best Director; Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell, the first two women to be nominated for Best Director in the same year; Yuh-Jung Youn, the first Korean Best Supporting Actress winner, who is the first Korean actor to win in any award category; Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, the first Black women to win Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
Then there are the losses. Neither Viola Davis nor Andra Day became the second Black woman to win Best Actress. Neither Yeun nor Ahmed became firsts. And the ceremony was structured in anticipation of Chadwick Boseman’s posthumous Best Actor win that never came.
Once again, we see a groundbreaking Oscars season. Maybe next year we will too.
In her acceptance speech for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Mia Neal said “I stand here as Jamika and I break this glass ceiling with so much excitement for the future. Because I can picture Black trans women standing up here, our Asian sisters, our Latina sisters and Indigenous women. And I know one day it won’t be unusual or groundbreaking — it will just be normal.”
Hollywood is just a microcosm of the prejudice still preserved in the structures and institutions we built our countries, cities, and lives around. But being an industry that produces art — one that quite literally brings our attention to the issues on the big screen — Hollywood is an amplification of what lies at both the surface and the core of American society.
In what it produces and fails to produce, or highlights and fails to highlight, every move made is a direct interaction with social agendas. It is for this reason that Hollywood needs to be held to a higher standard than it is now. How can it be representative of the creative voices in an industry if we continue to see ‘firsts?’ The simple answer is that it cannot, and is not, so long as this is the case.
That being said, I cannot write a piece about this year’s Academy Awards without acknowledging how hopeful these ‘firsts’ make me. I am looking forward to the day that each category is filled with diverse nominees, followed by diverse winners.
I have always considered watching the Oscars to be a guilty pleasure. I felt they couldn’t be taken too seriously due to their blatant dismissal of deserving filmmakers and actors. I kept watching though, even maneuvering my way into a free trial of YouTube Premium so I could watch from my dorm without cable. The past two ceremonies have felt especially memorable to me… some might say groundbreaking.
I am still frustrated, and frequently disappointed by Hollywood, however. I can’t help but roll my eyes when I hear reporters ask Yuh-Jung Youn how Brad Pitt smelled instead of how it felt to be recognized for her performance. When Daniel Kaluuya, the Best Supporting Actor winner, is mistaken for Leslie Odom Jr. following his win. Ignorance and microaggressions, brushed off as miscommunications, further perpetuate the prejudice of the industry.
I do believe that Hollywood is on the path toward true progress — rather than purely performative gestures. The past few years have indicated that much. Someday the path will wind its way, bringing an industry along with it. And hopefully, in that time, America will follow.