We evaluate the history of Asian movies at the Academy Awards, and how over the years inherent racism has painted the award culture.
“When I tell you that every single Asian person backstage at the SAG Awards just had the same emotional look on their face when the PARASITE team… even people who had nothing to do with the movie…”, Jen Yamato, an Los Angeles Times Reporter tweeted when the cast of Parasite won Best Ensemble at the 26th Screen Actor Guild (SAG) Awards, held on January 19, 2020.
Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite became the first South Korean movie to be nominated for Oscars in the categories of Best Picture and Best International Feature Film. Rounding out Parasite‘s six total nominations were nods for Directing, Film Editing, and Production Design. Despite the film’s memorable performances—from Song Kang Ho’s palpable tension as he sweats and hides beneath a coffee table to Park So Dam’s quick, sharp wit—acknowledgments in acting categories were pointedly missing. This bias is a continuing phenomenon, from 1987’s Last Emperor (9 nominations) to 2000’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (10) to 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha (six) to 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire (10) and 2012’s Life of Pi (11).
Media studies scholars told VICE, “the reasons behind this lack of recognition are multi-layered. With pop culture reflecting society at large, Asian actors face more than just industry issues. Beyond the general lack of distribution of Asian films, the difficulty Asian actors face in breaking into Hollywood’s mainstream, and the Academy’s mostly-white demographics, Asians in Hollywood must also go up against the racial stereotypes and biases of American society, which inform the way viewers perceive their performances. When it comes to judging the work of Asian actors, the white American mainstream has historically been clouded by bias.”
However, in a year that could have been a major leap forward in representation at the Oscars, performers of Asian descent were overlooked in all of the acting categories. Notably, Awkwafina was not among the nominees for Best Actress, despite rave reviews for her performance in The Farewell. The snubs for The Farewell also include Lulu Wang, who wrote and directed the film and was overlooked in the Best Director and Best Original Screenplay categories. . The only time a woman of Asian descent has been nominated for Best Actress was in 1936, when Eurasian actress Merle Oberon was up for The Dark Angel. Meanwhile, the last time any Asian actor was nominated by the Academy was in 2007, when Rinko Kikuchi was up for Best Supporting Actress for Babel.
Overall, the lack of expanded representation comes after decades of being overlooked during awards season.
The issue was further aggravated at the 2016 Oscars — which had already drawn criticism over the failure to nominate any people of color in the acting categories — when host Chris Rock brought out three Asian-American children for a stereotype-laden sight gag. Constance Wu and others slammed the joke, and a few days later, Sandra Oh, George Takei and director Ang Lee were among several Academy members to sign an open letter calling for an apology.
As the Los Angeles Times found in a 2012 report, Oscar voters were 94 percent white and 77 percent male, with Black voters eking out only two percent and Latinx voters making up even less. The Academy’s current breakdown isn’t clear, but ABC reported last year that based on the most recent numbers provided, it was making steps toward change, with women making up 49 percent of the members added in 2018, and people of color accounting for 38 percent. Despite these efforts, the fact remains that in 2018, people of color still made up only 16 percent of the Academy’s overall voting body.
A similar perspective was shared by Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. “If the stereotype is that Asians are not expressive and the entire enterprise of acting and the reward of the Oscars is about being expressive, those stereotypes work against Asian actors,” Yuen told VICE. “There’s variation in expression, just as there is variation of expression in Western cultures, but there’s racism against Asians: the idea that all Asians look alike, the inability to distinguish between Asians and [different] Asian cultures. Those old racist ideas that Asians have to face in the general culture definitely impact how they fare in popular culture.”
It’s the 92nd Academy awards this year. Let’s hope the Academy finally wakes up to the plethora of Asian talent at the movies; because as Bong Joon Ho said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
Feature Image Credits: Getty Images