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Oscars Diversity: Historic Wins Leap Over Low Bar Set By Hollywood

Like every single other awards ceremony in the past year, the 93rd annual Academy Awards looked a little different — but thank goodness it didn’t take place entirely on Zoom. We may have reached a point in the pandemic when virtual acceptance speeches have become awkward or challenged by a bad wifi connection. Nonetheless, like every ceremony since 2016’s great #OscarsSoWhite movement launched by April Reign, one of the main buzzwords of the night was diversity.

Diversity, inclusion, representation and terms that challenge the white, cisgender, heterosexual and male dominance of Hollywood have been an issue long before Reign’s much-needed #OscarsSoWhite reckoning. It just wasn’t until 2016 that the industry started to take notice. With each passing year, the needle moves a scant and 2021 was no exception. In fact, major historic wins took place on Sunday night that provided substantial gains when it came to diversity.

Filmmaker Chloe Zhao led the charge of inclusivity at the Oscars, as she became the first woman of color and the second woman ever to win Best Director for the picturesque “magic hour” wanderlust drama of Americana Nomadland starring Frances McDormand (who won Best Actress for her role). On top of that, she became the first Asian woman to win the directing accolade and the second Asian woman to collect a trophy for Best Picture after Kwak Sin-ae took home the award last year for Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.

The first woman to win Best Director was Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010. The pair join a small class of women who were nominated in the directing category in the 93-year history of the Oscars. Nominees included Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties in 1976, Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993, Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation in 2003 and Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird in 2017.

The milestone win for Nomadland and Zhao are to be celebrated, but are a glaring reminder of the not-so-inclusive history of the Oscars. Although a celebration is in order, these sort of “firsts” are bittersweet because of the lack of inclusion Hollywood has built itself upon since its inception.

When Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson won the Oscar for makeup and hairstyling alongside makeup artist Sergio Lopez-Rivera, the two made history as the first Black women to win the category.

“I stand here, as Jamika and I break this glass ceiling, with so much excitement for the future,” said Neal in her acceptance speech. She went on to detail her history of racism faced by her father who was Tuskegee Airman and a graduate of Northwestern.

Neal added that she looks forward to the day when more Black trans women, Asians, and members of the Latinx and Indigenous community as well as other people in the margins will take the stage to accept an Oscar.

“I know that one day it won’t be unusual or groundbreaking, it will just be normal,” she said.

This is the best way to describe diversity in Hollywood at this very moment. These “firsts” are seen as groundbreaking and will continue to be seen as monumental until underrepresented voices are on an equal playing field alongside the dominant culture. It seems novel because people of color winning at a major awards ceremony isn’t necessarily the norm in Hollywood — but with these types of wins, the industry is getting closer towards some semblance of equity.

In addition to Zhao, Neal and Wilson’s milestone wins, their were victories in diversity in supporting acting categories. Daniel Kaluuya won his first Oscar for his role in Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah while Minari’s Yuh-jung Youn continued her awards season winning streak, making history as the first Korean actress to win in her category.

Like Zhao, the wins were monumental, but were met with some moments that proved Hollywood — and the world for that matter are far from where they need to be when it comes to diversity. In the press room after his win, a journalist mistook Kaluuya for Leslie Odom Jr. from One Night in Miami, but he handled the problematic snafu professionally. In her acceptance speech, Youn jokingly forgave Hollywood for mispronouncing her name throughout her awards season campaign — specifically Brad Pitt, who presented her with the Oscar. These flubs and snafus can be translated to microaggressions which contribute to misrepresentation of marginalized and underrepresented communities.

Former Daily Show writer Travon Free also made history as the first Black winner for his short Two Distant Strangers in the Best Live-Action Short category, an award he shared with Martin Desmond Roe. During his acceptance speech, Free used the dais to bring light to the killing of Black people by police officers, an issue that has been relevant just as much now as it was since America was created. “I just ask that you please not be indifferent, please don’t be indifferent to our pain,” said Free.

Other wins for the evening that pushed that diversity needle included a win for H.E.R., who is half Black and half Filipino. The musician won Best Song for “Fight For You” from Judas and the Black Messiah alongside her collaborators Dernst Emile II and Tiara Thomas. in addition, Kemp Powers’ Soul won Animated Feature while Jon Batiste who shared the Best Score Oscar for Soul with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Being consummate advocate he is, Hollywood powerhouse Tyler Perry was honored with the the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for using his platform to not only amplify Black voices and stories, but to help the Atlanta community and beyond. Like Free and many others, Perry didn’t shy away from the racial reckoning that is blanketing the country.

Other notable moments of inclusivity included Bong Joon-ho presenting Zhao with the Best Director award — completely in Korean with the help of translator Sharon Choi, who gained her own notoriety during director Bong’s Oscar campaign last year for Parasite.

During the ceremony, history was made in terms of accessibility with an American Sign Language interpreter present in the media room while Oscar winner Marlee Matlin presented trophies for the documentary categories in ASL. The media room stage was also fully accessible and closed captioning and audio descriptions were provided courtesy of Google.

The accessibility of the ceremony was a step in the right direction, but it was also reported that the Oscars ceremony, with its trucks and grand set ups at Union Station in Los Angeles, prevented people with disabilities who live nearby from accessing the station for the last month.

As previously mentioned, Frances McDormand won for Nomadland in a category that included Viola Davis and Andra Day. For the Best Actor category, Riz Ahmed, Steven Yeun, and the late, great Chadwick Boseman were nominated, but Anthony Hopkins took home the win for his role in The Father.

Hopkins was unable to attend the ceremony and took to Instagram from Wales to accept the award.

“At 83 years of age, I did not expect to get this award, I really didn’t. I’m very grateful to the Academy,” he said. Hopkins is a six-time nominee and won his first Oscar in 1992 for his iconic role in The Silence of the Lambs. Boseman was the favorite to win posthumously as his performance in Ma Raineys Black Bottom has been earning trophies throughout awards season. That said, when he won the final award of the 93rd Oscars, people were surprised — including Hopkins.

“I want to pay tribute to Chadwick Boseman, who was taken from us far too early,” he said in his Instagram video. “I really did not expect this, so I feel very privileged and honored.”

Compared to last year’s Oscars, 2021’s ceremony was very inclusive. Parasite was the big winner at last year’s ceremony, as it made history becoming the first non-English feature to win Best Picture and was the first film to win both Best Picture and Best International Feature. It also won Best Original Screenplay and Best Director, but none of its actors received nominations. In addition, Taika Waititi became the first Oscar winner of Maori descent when he took the award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

In addition, 2021 surpassed 2020 in the major acting categories — it wasn’t as difficult considering Harriet‘s Cynthia Erivo was the only person of color nominated.

The wins for Zhao, Youn and Ma Raineys Black Bottom are historic, groundbreaking and worthy of celebration. It pushes Hollywood towards a more diverse playing field, but at the same time, the bar Hollywood has set is low. It’s time for the industry to do more to raise that bar so these inclusive wins will be, as Mia Neal put it, normal.