Happy April! As spring settles in over Hollywood, this year's awards season is getting set for a delayed Academy Awards later this month. If the declining viewership of this year's Golden Globes is any indication, the Oscars could be in for a tough test, especially after last year's dismal viewership. The Globes were also plagued by technical glitches, while the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which runs the Globes, faced intense backlash after issues of diversity among its membership and improper payments came to light.
But unlike the Globes, this year's Oscars field is being hailed as one of the most diverse. Five years after the movement #OscarsSoWhite railed against the Academy for its lack of representation, could the show be turning a corner?
"We're heartened to see many of the firsts," Tina Tchen, the leader of Time's Up, told me this week.
The organisation, which was founded to address equity in the workplace after the sexual harassment case against Harvey Weinstein, was outspoken about the lack of diversity at this year's Golden Globes. Tchen said that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had been working hard to make changes over the past five years, and that it shows.
"To give the Academy credit, they understood this was a lot more than just representation " it was about doing the deep work about being truly inclusive," she said.
The differences between the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Academy in terms of approaches to diversity are stark, said Mark Young, a professor at USC's Marshall School of Business. While the Academy has grown its voting member ranks to more than 9,000 in 2021 from nearly 6,000 in 2015, Young said, the HFPA has fewer than 100 members " many of whom are not journalists, as was originally intended, and none of whom are Black.
"The HFPA should have seen this coming," Tchen said. "This is not new news to anyone who's been paying attention over the course of the last several years. Especially in the last year, I think every institution in America has been paying a lot of attention to racial justice and to gender justice and equity and inclusion."
Coming off the Globes, then, the Oscars field stands apart with several milestones and firsts, broadening the range of storytelling that Hollywood celebrates. Even with new rules and guidelines in place that are not even in effect yet, the Academy has highlighted underrepresented communities and stories this year.
And in a year that has been marked not only by the pandemic's obliteration of theatrical releases but also by a frightening rise in violence against Asian Americans, the message of this year's show is seen by many as hopeful.
Hollywood and the media have long furthered stereotypical depictions of Asians, said Young, which has given Americans the perception that Asians fit into boxes " including the model-minority myth leading to depictions of Asians as doctors or nerds or even comic relief.
"It's messed with people's heads in such a way that Asian Americans are marginalised, and they're not considered to be mainstream or positive," Young said.
Still from Minari. Image from Twitter
But with the nomination of films like Minari or the recognition of filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung and actors Steven Yeun and Riz Ahmed, the journey to breaking down those stereotypes, especially of Asian men, is progressing.
"I am encouraged," Tchen said of this year's Oscars nominees. "We should celebrate progress when it happens," she said, and "also use it as a moment to double down on the efforts."
Here are a few of the many firsts from this year's pool of nominees:
Nine actors of colour are nominated
The lead and supporting actor categories amount to 20 nominations, so this is nearly half. And of the nine, six nominees are Black actors, after there was only one last year.
Two Black women are up for best actress
For the first time in 50 years, there are two Black nominees in this category. Andra Day is being recognised for her role as Billie Holiday in the Hulu biopic The United States vs Billie Holiday, while Viola Davis got the nod for her role in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
Both Yeun and Ahmed are first-time nominees, and their films are also nominated in the Best Picture category.
Two women are nominated for best director
ChloÃ© Zhao, who directed Nomadland, and Emerald Fennell, who helmed Promising Young Woman, scored nominations in a category that has rarely featured women: Before this year, only five female filmmakers had been recognised.
Zhao is the first woman of colour ever nominated in this category.