The 93rd Academy Award nominations are here, and they are historic. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences saw at least nine firsts on Monday morning, when Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra Jonas took the stage in London to announce the nominees for the upcoming Oscars.
It was a banner year for Asian representation, a moment that feels especially significant in light of a disturbing surge in anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination. Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, about a Korean family pursuing their slice of the American Dream in Arkansas in the 1980s, is the first Asian-American produced and directed film starring a mostly Asian cast ever to be nominated for Best Picture. (1!) Steven Yeun, nominated for Best Actor for his performance as patriarch Jacob, is the first Asian American actor to get the nod. (2!) If he wins, he’ll be the first actor of Asian descent to win since Ben Kingsley in 1982. Significantly, Riz Ahmed, nominated for Best Actor for Sound of Metal, is the first actor of Pakistani descent to be nominated (3!), and the second-ever actor of South Asian descent after Kingsley himself. (Kingsley’s last nomination for Best Actor was for House of Sand and Fog in 2004.) Taken together, Ahmed and Yeun’s nominations mark yet another first: Never before have two Asian leads competed for Best Actor in the same year. (4!) What’s more, 73-year-old South Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung, nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Minari, is only the fourth woman of Asian descent to be recognized since Miyoshi Umeki won the award in 1957.
The prestigious Best Director category is always a contentious one. Prior to this year, only five women had ever been nominated, with just one win for Kathryn Bigelow in 2009. Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell’s nominations have changed the game. Not only was this the first time that the Academy has nominated two women in the same year (5!), Zhao (who just made history at the Golden Globes) is the very first woman of colour ever to receive the accolade. (6!) What’s more, Nomadland’s nomination for Best Picture alongside Minari marks the first time two movies directed by people of Asian descent are up for consideration. (7!) Lee Isaac Chung and Zhao are also the first two Asian directors to compete against each other for Best Director. (8!)
Viola Davis’ nomination for Best Actress for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is not her first. It’s not her second, or even her third. The actress’ fourth nomination, after one win for Best Supporting Actress in 2016, makes her the most-nominated Black actress ever (9!). And if either she or Andra Day, nominated for her performance in the United States vs. Billie Holiday, wins this year, they would be the first Black Best Actress winner in nearly 20 years — since Halle Berry’s historic win for Monster’s Ball in 2002 — and the second ever.
And yet, even after all those firsts, there was room for more. Regina King, who was snubbed for Best Director, could have been the first Black woman nominated in the category for her debut feature, One Night in Miami. Awkwafina’s snub for The Farewell last year was a sharp reminder that no woman of Asian descent has ever won Best Actress. The shameful lack of Latinx nominees this year (and every year is a blind spot the Academy needs to step up to address.
With these nominations, the Academy has given us the most diverse nominations in 93 years of Oscars history, proof that AMPAS’ aggressive campaign to add more women and people of colour to its vast membership is a step in the right direction. Still, it’s not yet time for them to pat themselves on the back. There are still too many firsts yet to come.