Major Wins for Asian Filmmakers at the 2023 Oscars Spotlight Marginal Progress With Diversity

14 March 2023

To have a film centered on a Chinese American family, and more specifically the conflict between an immigrant mother and her queer daughter, win the Oscar for Best Picture is undeniably a sign of progress in the movement to get the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize more art that comes from people from marginalized backgrounds.

On Sunday night, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” made Academy Awards history on multiple fronts, most of all with lead Michelle Yeoh becoming the first Asian woman to ever win Best Actress. Her victory ended a 21 year streak of all white winners since African American actress Halle Berry became the first woman of color to win the award in 2002. Similarly, her co-star Ke Huy Quan became the second Asian man to win Best Supporting Actor, nearly 40 years after “The Killing Fields” star Haing S. Ngor became the first.

It is important to highlight the huge gaps of time between those wins, because it helps illustrate why “Everything Everywhere All at Once” co-director Dan Kwan and producer Jonathan Wang’s Best Picture win are notable in juxtaposition. Receiving the Oscar alongside their creative partner Daniel Scheinert (who also won Best Director and Best Original Screenplay Oscars with Kwan) made them the third set of Asian producers to ever win the Oscar. The first were Bong Joon-ho and Kwak Sin-ae winning for “Parasite” three years ago. The second was Chloé Zhao in 2021.

Those pushing for more diversity at the Oscars are not infatuated by all the firsts in the major categories. 95 years into an awards show it should not be a novelty for a group of people that encompass nearly 12 percent of the population in Los Angeles to win on Hollywood’s biggest night. The actual result that critics of the Academy are after is a world where people from marginalized backgrounds are given equitable consideration in every category, and that those particular nominees would not have to feel the odds so strongly stacked against them winning. Those achievements in quick succession provide some hope that minority producers will be firmly in the mix for the biggest award of the night for many more Oscars to come, rather than be excluded for decades at a time.

Adding to what was a banner night for Asian talent is “The Elephant Whisperers” winning Best Documentary Short, making the director Kartiki Gonsalves and producer Guneet Monga the first Indian filmmakers to ever receive a competitive Oscar. Their fellow countrymen M. M. Keeravani and Chandrabose also became the second-ever Indian winners for Best Original Song, for “Naatu Naatu” from Tollywood phenomenon “RRR.”

Elsewhere, the fact that Ruth E. Carter, the first Black person to win the Oscar for Best Costume Design, became the first Black woman to win two Oscars (both for her work on the “Black Panther” films) come as a surprise when one thinks of stars like Whoopi Goldberg and Viola Davis, who have become staples at the Oscars.

Overall, there is still so much more room for the Oscars to grow into a more inclusive awards show. For example, a Latina still has never won Best Actress. But the last win to highlight, that shows how talent from marginalized backgrounds still have room to make Oscar history not tied to their identity, is Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro receiving an Oscar for his 2022 stop-motion animated musical “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” and therefore becoming the first person ever to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Animated Feature.

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