The 2021 list of Oscar nominations boasted some historic “firsts” for Asians in Hollywood — Chloé Zhao’s Best Director nod for Nomadland marks the first time an Asian woman has been nominated in the category. Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal) and Steven Yeun (Minari) were both nominated for Best Actor, the first time two Asian men have been simultaneously nominated in this category. Yeun’s Minari co-star and veteran Korean star Youn Yuh-Jung is the first South Korean to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress. It’s heartening to see Asian talent being rewarded in a year that has been so hard for the Asian community, whilst at the same time being sobering — the number of “firsts” indicates how long Asians have been maligned in Hollywood. In the wake of the recent uptick in violence against Asian Americans, a lot of discussion has sparked about the way negative stereotyping of Asians in the media has enabled and contributed to an atmosphere of Anti-Asian bigotry, misogyny, and racism. This may be a year of many “firsts” for Asians in the American film industry, but this is far from the beginning of the story of Hollywood’s often fraught relationship with Asians. This isn’t a comprehensive list of Asian Oscar nominees by any stretch, but rather an overview meant to explore how the presence of Asians in Hollywood has changed.
Historically speaking, oftentimes the only way Asians received recognition was in a way that either divorced themselves from their Asianness, or in a way that commodified their identity for Hollywood’s consumption. In 1935, Anglo-Indian actress Merle Oberon earned a Best Actress nomination for The Dark Angel, but it wasn’t exactly a win for representation. Although Oberon was born in Kolkata, India to a Eurasian mother, she denied her heritage for most of her life. She always insisted she was born in Tasmania, Australia, and made extensive use of skin lightening products. She generally insisted that she was white. As much as she was famed for her “exotic” looks during her lifetime, her mixed race status was something she felt would hinder her in Hollywood. Only by denying her heritage and attempting to uphold an image of whiteness did she feel she would be able to maintain any degree of success in the industry.
Asians being rewarded only insofar as they were palatable to a white, western audience continued to be a pervasive issue. The first Asian to win the Best Actor award was Yul Brenner, a Russian-American Actor of Bulyat ancestry. Brenner won for his role as King Mongkut in The King and I — a film whose king in question was meant to be from Siam — modern-day Thailand. Whilst Brenner and some of the supporting cast were of Asian descent, there was not a single Thai person in the main cast. Moreover, critic Dominic Cavendish called the musical “one of the most problematic musicals in the 20th-century American canon.” The story relies on promoting the “civilizing” influence of the west on the comparatively “barbaric” east. It’s also important to point out that Brenner was technically Caucasian, and thus still had to don yellowface in order to play the role; other actors in consideration for the role were also white actors such as Rex Harrison and Noel Coward. Asians were thus an aesthetic accessory to this story, and Brenner was rewarded for contributing to a western, stereotyped image of an Asian person.
Behind the screens, Asians actually enjoyed some more success, although never for telling Asian stories. Indian producer, director, and screenwriter Ismail Merchant earned Best Picture nominations with his production company Merchant Ivory for A Room With a View (1986), Howards End (1992), and The Remains of the Day (1993). All of these were adaptations of classic English novels. Interestingly, The Remains of the Day was written by Japanese British author Kazuo Ishiguro, although its main characters are white Brits. On the one hand, Merchant’s success was a rare example of Asian filmmakers being honored at the same level as their white counterparts, creating films that earned genuine acclaim.
Asians playing white
However, the absence of onscreen Asian characters or stories in these films is telling. While it’s problematic in itself to suggest that people of color should only be telling stories about their race and their own experiences — especially when their white counterparts have never been confined by that expectation — it also spoke to the homogeneity of Hollywood stories. Only stories that resonated with white audiences were rewarded or seen as a default. People of color were again rewarded only in a capacity where they “transcended” their race: F. Murray Abraham was the first and only actor of Syrian descent to bag the Best Actor award, but again it was for his role as the White Italian Antonio Salieri (incidentally, Abraham is actually half Italian-American) in Peter Schaffer’s Mozart biopic, Amadeus.
There was a slight shift in the late 20th century. Half-Indian, half-white actor Ben Kingsley earned the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the titular role in Gandhi. Although the film was written and directed by white creatives, it did center the Indian independence struggle. It was well-received in both India and internationally. In recent years, Gandhi’s legacy has been reexamined, and there are clearly nuances about racism that the film missed. That being said, it was the first time an Asian actor won an Oscar for playing an Asian character in a story that centered Asians: where The King & I reinforced ideas of western supremacy, Gandhi did explore a genuine historical period that specifically dealt with fighting western imperialism in Asia.
In the directorial categories meanwhile, Taiwanese director Ang Lee was one of the first Asian directors to earn acclaim for his direction of Asian stories. Lee has a diverse and widely acclaimed filmography: he earned nominations for Best Picture and Best Director for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). This was a big deal — the Chinese language film is adapted from a Chinese novel, and is an example of a wuxia film. Wuxia is a genre of Chinese martial arts fiction. For a foreign-laguage film with an entirely Asian creative team made in a specifically Asian cultural tradition to receive a nomination was definitely groundbreaking at the time.
Nearly 20 years later, in 2020, Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019) would make history in this tradition — it was the first Asian and first foreign language film to win Best Picture, and its victory was a cause for a huge celebration for much of the Asian community. Asian stories and Asian voices were finally being recognized and rewarded on the same level as their white peers. It was an emotional victory for both lovers of cinema and those who had sorely missed seeing a representation of their communities for so long.
It would be a mistake to view Parasite’s victory as a sign that Hollywood has healed its damaging relationship with the Asian community. Although 2019 boasted Parasite’s cathartic sweep while Dev Patel received a Best Actor nomination as an Indian Australian attempting to reconnect with his family and heritage in Lion (2019), it also had some glaring snubs. People were outraged that filmmaker Lulu Wang and lead actress Awkwafina weren’t nominated for the critically acclaimed film The Farewell — and that the film itself was only nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category, despite being made by an American filmmaker. It was a move that made “other” the Asian American community, even as Parasite was celebrated. Echoes of this discrimination are still very much visible in the current awards cycle. Similar outrage followed the Golden Globe’s decision to only nominate Minari — which is about a Korean American family and is made by Korean American director Lee Isaac Chung — as a foreign film.
Chloé Zhao was the first Asian American woman and second woman ever to win Best Director. Riz Ahmed or Steven Yeun would have been the first Asian to win Best Actor in nearly 20 years. Every Asian nominee at this year’s Oscars is making history, and this is heartening and exciting. But every “first” carries the weight of nearly a century of nothingness. That’s nearly a hundred years of discrimination, stereotyping, and marginalization Asians have faced at the hands of Hollywood. It’s not that only now has worthy Asian talent emerged. It’s that only now is that talent finally starting to be recognized, encouraged, and rewarded. The last year has shown us that trends in media representation have real-world, often dangerous consequences. The best way to address years of harmful stereotyping is to elevate and celebrate Asian stories and storytellers. In order to support the Asian community and to combat rising Anti-Asian racism, it is crucial for each of us to support and uplift Asian creators and their art. Hopefully, all of the Oscars to come will make sure Hollywood gets to work on that.