“OUR GOLDEN GAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!,” Saturday Night Live breakout star Bowen Yang wrote last night in an Instagram caption, capping off the 2020 Golden Globe Awards. The comedian was talking about Nora “Awkwafina” Lum, the first-ever Asian woman in history to win the award show’s Lead Movie Actress in a Musical or Comedy race.
“This woman is drawing a blueprint for us all,” Yang continued on Instagram about Awkwafina, who took home gold for her performance in tragicom The Farewell (she won the Globe under her O.G. stage name).
Yang is right to be proud of his friend. She has accomplished a feat that took 77 years of Golden Globe honours to actually come to fruition. But when you think about the “blueprint,” as Yang says, Awkwafina took to finally get major recognition, you realize something a little more insidious is afoot in Hollywood. It’s a sinking feeling that only grows stronger when you look at the career of Ramy Youssef, the star of Hulu comedy Ramy and the only other person of colour to win an acting trophy at the 2020 Globes.
It is likely some in Hollywood are patting themselves on the back this morning following Awkwafina and Youssef's wins last night (ahem, the HFPA). After all, two young performers of colour just took home two of the most coveted statues in entertainment at a young age (Awkwafina is 31; Youssef is 28). It's easy to claim inclusion and diversity attempts are firing on all cylinders. However, these PR-friendly headlines help cover up the unsettling facts that lay beneath. Both actors have been forced to relentlessly spin their own scrappy, self-made material just to jam their foot in the door of eventual stardom.
Now, looking at the results of their hard work, it’s clear the barrier to Hollywood greatness is simply too steep for performers of colour.
Awkwafina crafted her YouTube-famous rap alter-ego in the early 2010s as a way to “express angst,” as she told InStyle. Those early-decade viral music video hits — see: “My Vag” — then put Awkwafina on the radar of Hollywood decision makers, which led to her casting in movie roles like her feature-film debut in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. Success in that comedy pushed Awkwafina to a scene-stealing part in rom-com blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians and the starring role in The Farewell, a movie written, directed, and produced by Lulu Wang. To play bilingual Billie, Awkwafina, who did not grow up in a Chinese-speaking household, had to buckle down and brush up on her Mandarian. The actress was “nervous” to do the language justice. Later this month, Awkwafina’s Comedy Central series, Nora From Queens, will debut. It’s a comedy that she writes, produces, and leads.
Angela Bassett was the last woman of colour to take home that specific award. Bassett won the Best Movie Actress in a Musical or Comedy race almost three full decades ago in 1993 with her performance in Whitney Huston biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It. Bassett is the only other woman of colour in history to win the category.
Awkwafina’s trajectory in Hollywood looks very different from past winners in her categories.From two-time champs Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams to rising young mega-talents like Saoirse Ronan not one of them had to scrape at acclaim through some mix of self-created #trending fame, years toiling away at comedy, and moxie. They were all quickly welcomed into the upper echelons of acting with open arms and given the award recognition that come with it. Lawrence enjoyed her first Oscar nomination in January 2011 when she was hailed as the ingenue of our generation for her role in Winter’s Bone. Lawrence’s darling status was announced less than a year-and-a-half after starring in the oft-forgotten TBS sitcom The Bill Engvall Show. In 2001, Adams appeared as a mutant teen in WB superhero drama Smallville. By 2006, she was an Oscar nominee for her star-making turn in Junebug. Ronan received an Oscar nomination for her third-ever film, Atonement. She was 13 at the time.
Youssef followed a very similar track to his fellow winner Awkwafina. After his Nick at Night show See Dad Run was cancelled following a two-reason run, Youssef wasn’t invited to join some raunchy teen series or given the lead role in a big-budget movie like other Nickelodeon stars. Instead, he moved to stand-up to grow his career. After several years of stand-up shows and small film parts, Hulu picked up Youssef’s self-titled show. It’s a comedy he writes, produces, directs, and leads. Ramy covers a subject often overlooked by Gen Y and Gen Z stories: faith. Youssef plays the titular Ramy, a first-generation American Muslim struggling to balance his beliefs with secular pressures. When he took the stage to accept his award, the first thing he said was Allahu Akbar, a phrase that raises hairs on xenophobic Americans’ necks.
The white actors who have won Youssef’s category since 2010 — Jim Parsons, Matt LeBlanc, Andy Samberg, Jeffrey Tambor, and Michael Douglas — have not come close to pulling quadruple duty on the series that brought them Globe statues. Not a single one is credited as a writer or director for the comedies they won their award for. Only Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Samberg and Kominsky Method’s Michael Douglas have producer credits on their respective series. Once again, a reminder that Youssef and Awkwafina also created their shows. They had to make roles for themselves to tell their lived experiences.
Every single man of colour to win Youssef’s race in that time — Don Cheadle, Gael García Bernal, Donald Glover, and Aziz Ansari — put in a similar amount of tireless work as the Ramy star. Famously, both Atlanta's Glover and Master of None's Ansari created series like Youssef, which are defined by their originator’s singular vision on love, adulthood, and the world (Ansari co-created None with Andrew Yang). However, Cheadle and Bernal, who respectively won their Globes for House of Lies and Mozart In the Jungle, also had triple responsibilities on their comedies. Both men produced and directed their shows, while also starring in them.
Even the third and final winner of colour to take the stage during the 2020 Golden Globes — Parasite helmer Bong Joon-ho — was left burning the candle at both ends. South Korean Joon-ho directed, wrote, and produced the Best Foreign Language Film award-winning thriller. Joon-ho has also directed, written, and produced his two other biggested feature films, Snowpiercer and Okja.
Awkwafina, Ramy Youssef, and Bong Joon-ho might all have the awards show-winning recipe for creatives of colour. But why does the main ingredient appear to be exhaustion?