Make a list of Asian American actors in your head right now. How many can you think of? Answers vary, but the consensus is, by and large, the same: it’s difficult to come up with a list of more than three or four names.
On Jan. 23, when the nominations for the 90th Academy Awards were announced, they were overwhelmingly met with appreciation and pleasant surprise. The 2018 Oscars nominations, continuing the progress of last year’s awards ceremony (in which “Moonlight” had the historic best picture win), reflected many wins for minorities. “Get Out,” with its four nominations, overturned expectations that the Academy wouldn’t recognize the horror genre, showing the movie’s importance and its social relevance in a time of racism and hate.
Moreover, perhaps reflecting the progress made by recent movements for female equality like #MeToo and #TimesUp, women and women’s stories were more appreciated in this year’s nominees. Rachel Morrison became the first woman ever nominated in Best Cinematography for her work in “Mudbound,” and “Lady Bird” director Greta Gerwig became the fifth woman ever nominated for Best Director. Many Best Picture nominees are also about strong women, from “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” to “The Post.”
The question of racial diversity at the Oscars, however, is one which still looms large. Asian-American actors have earned just 1 percent of Oscar nominations in 90 years, and the 2018 nominations marked the sixth year in a row in which no Latino actors have been nominated in an acting category. While the progress the Academy has made deserves to be applauded, the exclusion of these races also needs to evoke deep thought and reflection in all of us.
For Asian Americans, visibility has always been a struggle. The lack of representation in the Oscars stems from the larger issue of lack of representation in the movie industry in general. Asians have a tendency to be seen as the model minority — silent, subservient and submissive. It is a stereotype we all must work to break, and a role which did exactly that was Hong Chau’s feisty portrayal of Ngoc Lan Tran in the movie “Downsizing.” Admittedly, the movie itself was endlessly boring and unremarkable, but the Academy truly overlooked the Vietnamese actress’ breakout role by choosing not to even nominate her.
Another snub, in my opinion, was that of “The Big Sick” in the best picture nominations. Hilarious and charming, the movie told a story about an interracial couple in a refreshingly normal way, with a mixture of familiar romantic comedy tropes and also the more unknown cultural stigmas surrounding their relationship. Although Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon received a nomination for their original screenplay, the movie still deserved more appreciation from the Academy.
While we should recognize the progress made in recent years and we can all see that the Oscars are no longer #sowhite, the absence of Asian Americans as well as Latino (their strongest representation is the heartwarming children’s movie “Coco,” with its all-Latino cast) cannot be brushed aside. As mentioned before, this absence is a repercussion of the bigger problem — a general lack of these minorities in the movie industry. Whitewashing is a real phenomenon, as shown by the various instances throughout 2017 where Asian Americans were disappointed again and again by the selection of famous, white actresses like Tilda Swinton, Emma Stone and Scarlet Johansson to play Asian women in movies like “Aloha.”
That is not to say that progress isn’t being made. People everywhere breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced that Mulan would be played by Chinese actress Liu Yifei in Disney’s 2019 live-action remake. In addition, the highly-anticipated movie “Crazy Rich Asians” is breaking the norm as one of the first American-made films to feature a cast fully comprised of actors of Asian descent. There is an abundance of Asian-American as well as Latino talent in the industry, so there is no explanation for the meager number of speaking roles they have held in films throughout the years. The road to visibility and public recognition will be a long one, and we still have a long way to go.