On 5th January Awkwafina kicked off the 2020 awards season by making history as the first woman of Asian descent to win a Golden Globe for Best Actress. Don’t expect any such moment at the Academy Awards this year. The 2020 Oscar nominations, announced on 13th January by John Cho and Issa Rae, are once again overwhelmingly white.
Among those snubbed? Jennifer Lopez, whose performance in Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers caused souls to leave their earthly bodies; Lupita Nyong’o, who slipped into the skins of not one, but two characters in Jordan Peele’s Us; Jamie Foxx as a wrongfully convicted man in Just Mercy; Alfre Woodard, who gave a stomach-churning turn as prison warden struggling with the burden of the death penalty in Clemency; and Awkwafina, who gave one of the most emotional and tender performances of the year in Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (a film that was completely shut out of the nominations).
Seeing overwhelmingly white acting categories in 2020 is frustrating, and frankly, unacceptable. The Academy has largely followed in the footsteps of the BAFTAs, whose nominations of all-white acting nominees sparked outrage just last week. But even so, Awkwafina’s snub is particularly disappointing — though not surprising — given the Academy’s track record. With Awkwafina out of the running, 2020 will mark the 85th year without a nominee of Asian descent. Only one woman of Asian descent has ever been nominated in the Best Actress category: Merle Oberon, nominated in 1935 for her turn as Kitty Vane in The Dark Angel. She did not win.
Asian actors have historically been one of the most underrepresented groups in Hollywood, with only 1% of nominees across categories in the show’s 92-year history (including four for Ben Kingsley, who is of Gujarati Indian descent). This year tipped the balance slightly, with nods to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, nominated for Best International Feature Film, Best Director, and Best Picture, among others. Still, had she been nominated, Awkwafina would have been the first American actress of East Asian descent ever to be so honoured by the Academy, a statistic that is hard to stomach after years of lip service to inclusion and representation by an organisation that fails to show results year after year.
To make matters worse, the Best Actress race wasn’t even the Academy’s only chance to make history this year. Only two Latina women have ever won the award for Best Supporting Actress: Rita Moreno for West Side Story in 1962, and Mercedes Ruehl for The Fisher King in 1992. (No Latina actress has ever won Best Actress, and only three have been nominated: Salma Hayek for Frida in 2002, Catalina Sandino Moreno for Maria Full of Grace in 2004, and Yalitza Aparicio for Roma in 2019.) With J.Lo snubbed, that won’t change anytime soon.
A 2019 study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative showed that in the 100 top-grossing films of 2018, 33 movies were missing black women characters, 54 had no Asian or Asian American characters, and 70 had no Latina characters. Awkwafina and J.Lo’s performances — specific representations of a particular American experience — gave voice to communities too often silenced by the larger Hollywood establishment. And once again, the Academy has turned a blind eye.
With that in mind, it’s worth taking a look at the kinds of movies and performances the Academy did see fit to honour this year. Portraits of toxic masculinity and the tortured male psyche have been at the forefront of awards season, with movies like Todd Phillips’ Joker (which topped the nominations with 11 nods), Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time..in Hollywood, Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, James Grey’s Ad Astra, James Mangold’s Ford. v. Ferrari, and to a certain extent Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Sam Mendes’ 1917 (co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns).
Both films with mostly-women casts to receive nominations — Little Women and Bombshell — tell stories based on the white female experience, one that yes, is less represented than the male-focused narratives mentioned above, but still far more prevalent than those by and about people, and especially women, of colour.
It’s especially concerning that this all comes after a much-publicised push by the Academy to diversify its membership. Over 2018 and 2019, 1,770 new members were added to the Hollywood voting body, with a special emphasis on women, people of colour, and younger artists. Among those joining the Academy’s ranks in 2019 were Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Letitia Wright, Claire Foy, Sterling K. Brown, Tom Holland, Gemma Chan, Lady Gaga, Nisha Ganatra, and Adele, bringing the number of women up to 32% (from 25% in 2015), with and the number of people of colour to 16% (from 8% in 2015).
Monday’s nominations confirmed that we’re in for yet another Oscars ceremony without any women directors nominated, and with many of those who made 2019 such a great year for film stuck watching their white peers accept awards they should have been nominated for. It’s easy to get discouraged, so I leave you on a positive note. If she wins, Cynthia Erivo, nominated for Best Actress for her performance as Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, would be the second black woman ever to take home the award, after Halle Berry in 2003. She’d also be the youngest-ever person to EGOT.