When Halle Berry became the first black woman to win an Academy Award for Lead Actress for her performance in Monster’s Ball (2001), she dedicated her award to “every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.” Eighteen years later, Berry remains the sole woman of color to have been awarded that honor.
The announcement of this year’s Oscar nominations on Jan. 13 was met with a resounding groan. Out of 20 possible acting nominations, only one person of color was nominated: Cynthia Ervio, for her role as Harriet Tubman in the film Harriet. This film received no nominations outside of Ervio’s performance and Best Original Song, and it’s hard not to see her nomination as a consolation prize. It’s a way for the Academy to say, “See? We know people of color exist.”
Looking at the track record of black acting nominees in particular, it appears the majority of performances the Academy deems worthy of recognizing are the ones in which the nominee plays a slave, a civil rights activist, a domestic worker, or some similar cliché. Even when they are recognized for these roles, they very rarely win.
For Latino and Asian actors, the Oscars offer an even worse fate. Rita Moreno and Lupita Nyong’o remain the only actresses of Latin descent to win Oscars. However, none have won for a leading role. Not a single Asian actor or actress has ever won the Oscar for a leading role either. Only two—Miyoshi Umeki in 1957 and Haing S. Ngor in 1984—have won Best Supporting in the Academy’s history. In fact, more white people have won awards for playing Asian characters in film than actual Asian people.
The Academy has a nasty track record of nominating Asian-led films for Best Picture while completely ignoring the actors in those films: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and this year’s Parasite. It is indisputably racist to look at these films as technical marvels while universally ignoring the feats of acting that help make them amazing. If white actors can be nominated for solid performances in films that are otherwise widely considered mediocre (i.e. Bombshell), then what do Asian actors need to do to be nominated for films that are widely recognized as masterpieces?
These problems aren’t exclusive to the acting categories, either. Another year has passed in which a female director will not be awarded. Only one woman has ever won: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2010), a war film starring men and centering on the male experience.
In general, the Academy has a very stiff idea of what should be considered Best Picture worthy: films about the experiences of men with displays of male rage. Even just this year, Joker and The Irishman both received nominations for the category. Men (white men, to be specific) are at the center of it all. This shouldn’t be surprising—they do, after all, make up the vast majority of the Academy. This means films like Hustlers or The Farewell are punished for meditating on the experiences of women of color. To the voters, this isn’t valuable.
In the Academy’s eyes, a film like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which dwells on the art of making movies from the perspective of—you guessed it—white men, is worthy of praise. Meanwhile, films like Dolemite is My Name, which also celebrates the art of movie-making, are not. Big difference? Dolemite centers on black cinema.
So, the Oscars have a racism problem and a sexism problem. This isn’t a groundbreaking, life-changing take. We’ve all known this for years. In 2016, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign launched in response to this exact problem. And then the next year, Moonlight (2016) won Best Picture. The #MeToo movement exposed horrible men in the film industry, and then we saw a female-led and directed film, Lady Bird (2017), get Best Picture, Screenplay, and Director nominations. Get Out (2017) won Best Original Screenplay that same year, with a Best Picture and Director nomination under its belt as well. There seemed to be real hope; small, but progress all the same.
But then, just a year later, Green Book (2018) won—a film directed by a white man that had nothing of nuance to say about race and released against the wishes of its black protagonist’s family. Even more frustratingly, it resembles another Best Picture winner from 30 years prior, Driving Miss Daisy (1989). Is the Academy too stubborn to truly change and welcome diverse stories? Will we only see changes in the years that people call them out, just for them to regress back to their old ways a few years later?
This year, Parasite made history as the first Korean film to ever be nominated at the Oscars. A critical juggernaut, a masterpiece of filmmaking, an original, daring, bold script with jaw-dropping performances … that will likely lose to a war film. This is not to say 1917 isn’t worthy of praise—it’s a technical feat, with amazing cinematography from the legendary Roger Deakins and outstanding performances—but its win won’t break boundaries.
Instead, much like Green Book and Driving Miss Daisy, 1917’s win would continue the Academy’s disappointing narrow mindedness. The very first Best Picture winner was Wings (1927), a war film set during World War I. We have since had 15 war films be awarded the top prize. 1917’s win would signify a refusal to change.
Nearly two decades after Berry’s historic win, the Academy’s usual nominations lineup looks strikingly similar to 2002—maybe even worse. In 2017, Berry reflected on her historic 2002 Best Leading Actress win. “It meant nothing,” she said. “I thought it meant something, but I think it meant nothing.”
Check out the Voice’s thoughts on this year’s Oscar nominations in the video below: