Leave it to Michelle Yeoh to save the Golden Globes. Or, on a less hyperbolic level, leave it to Michelle Yeoh to make a case for why we shouldn’t completely write off the embattled awards show altogether — at least for now. In the first broadcast back on NBC since the 2021 HFPA diversity scandal took the Golden Globes off the air, Yeoh accepted the award for Best Actress In a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy during the January 10 show for her role as Evelyn Wang in last year’s Everything Everywhere All At Once. It was an incredible performance for many reasons (Yeoh’s versatility! Her rapport with Ke Huy Quan! The hot dog fingers!), and a banner year for Yeoh; the culmination of over 40 years of work. But it wasn’t always an easy journey.
It’s a reality that Yeoh addressed right off the bat, sharing she’d be taking her time on stage in order to soak in the moment and her accolade. “It’s been an amazing journey and an incredible fight to be here today,” she said, “but I think it's been worth it.” *Cue sobbing.* The reason it took this long for Yeoh to gain this type of recognition is pretty straightforward. Recounting her experience coming to the United States at the beginning of her career, Yeoh shared her initial excitement about coming to Hollywood, and the fact that she didn’t always have a place in the industry. “It was a dream come true until I got here,” she said, “because look at this face. I came here and was told 'You're a minority.'"
Forty years after Yeoh first faced discrimination in her career, the topic of diversity was on many people’s minds. Going into Tuesday’s awards show, many people online (and at Refinery29) had complicated and conflicting feelings. With new inclusion initiatives taken by the HFPA since 2021, would the show be more diverse? Would that diversity actually mean anything in the long run? Would any win from a non-white actor feel kind of inauthentic? And ultimately, are these award shows even worth it anymore? While my mentality going into the night was more of the “burn it all down” variety, watching Yeoh stand on stage, absolutely beaming to an ovation from the likes of Rihanna and Steven Spielberg, with co-star Stephanie Hsu tearing up, was special. Despite the criticism, despite the controversy, winners like Yeoh deserve their moments, because they’ve worked so hard to get there — and that makes it all worth watching.
The idea of not having a place in the film and TV industry is a sentiment that many minority people share (essentially anyone who’s not white, male, or both), both on-screen and off, and it’s not new. Yeoh’s win was preceded by co-star Quan taking home the award for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy — an accolade that came almost 40 years after he first made his on-screen debut as a child actor in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Shortly after starting his career, Quan quit the film industry — at least in front of the camera — only returning to acting in 2018, inspired by the response to and acceptance of Crazy Rich Asians. “I felt so very lucky to have been chosen [in Indiana Jones],” Quan said in his speech. “As I grew older, I started to wonder if that was it, if that was just luck. For so many years, I was afraid I had nothing more to offer. No matter what I did, I would never surpass what I achieved as a kid.”
For too long actors like Quan and Yeoh couldn’t quite surpass the invisible barrier to succeed in spaces not historically made for them. While a 2022 Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA found that women and people of color had proportional representation among film leads, there is still work to be done towards parity. This is especially true when it comes to the number of people from underrepresented communities in the directors chair, a number that is growing, but still behind on-screen representation. Hollywood also continues to lag when it comes to recognising talent of colour. This was most recently — and aptly — demonstrated with the controversy that arose in 2021 when Netflix’s Emily In Paris was nominated for two Golden Globes and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You received none. The disparity in nominations between a then-critically panned TV series about a white, upper middle class character moving to Paris and donning designer duds, and an acclaimed series grappling with conversations of race, class, and the trauma of sexual assault, was startling for many. It reinforced the criticism that actors of colour are often forced to work harder than some of their other counterparts just to be seen or reach comparative levels of fame. As Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu told GQ in a 2018 interview about Yeoh’s illustrious career: “She should have much more recognition. She should be on the same level with a Meryl Streep.” Which is exactly why watching Yeoh, Quan, and other creatives like Abbott Elementary’s Sheryl Lee Ralph (at last year’s Emmy awards) *finally* getting their flowers is so monumental; we know what it took for them to get there.
Already, reviews of the 2023 Globes have lauded the awards show for a visible spike in diversity among the winners, but it’s complicated. Despite how wildly and undisputedly talented these actors are, it’s difficult not to feel a little cynical that they, including powerhouses like Angela Bassett, took home a trophy after what was essentially the year of diversity hires for the Globes to salvage its reputation. Globes host Jerrod Carmichael said as much in his opening monologue, boldly naming the very simple reason he says he was chosen to host two years after the HFPA was called out for having no Black voting members. Though he’s got comedic chops and charm, “I’m here because I’m Black,” Carmichael said.
Then there’s the fact that these actors don’t need the recognition of a Western-centric awards show to be qualified as great. As Yeoh mentioned in her acceptance speech, she has had an illustrious career pre-Everything Everywhere All At Once buzz, working with directors like Steven Spielberg and Danny Boyle, and on groundbreaking films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Not to mention a thriving career abroad. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to find other avenues for recognition outside of historically exclusionary awards shows. And maybe one day we will get there. But, despite the criticisms and controversies, recognition from organisations like the HFPA do mean something to these actors, as an acknowledgment of their talent and hard work — and, an acknowledgment that they’ve been seen within the industry they’ve worked so hard to achieve success in. As Yeoh told ET on the Globes’ red carpet of her long deserved career recognition, “It’s about time…Finally, now to be understanding what it feels like to really be seen, it does make a difference.” It’s what we’re all looking for, and it’s what so many of Yeoh’s own roles have helped viewers feel in their own lives.
Still, celebrating accomplishments like Yeoh’s isn’t to say that the HFPA has solved its race and diversity issue. It hasn’t.
One diversity statement, a slight bump in the number of Black HFPA members (from zero to 10.1% of its members), one show with slightly more diversity among the winners, and a Black host (the first solo Black host in the show’s history) doesn’t amount to impactful change if the HFPA just goes back to business as usual for the 81st ceremony, and the 82nd, and the 83rd. But it’s also essential to celebrate — and appreciate — great things happening to great people, and icons like Yeoh finally feeling seen.