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2018 Was a Breakthrough Year for Asians in Hollywood—but Not at the Oscars

Since 2015’s #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy has made an effort to foster more diversity among its nominees. This year’s nominations suggest that effort is still developing.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last year’s Oscars ceremony featured a short film from Time’s Up calling for diversity in Hollywood, during which Kumail Nanjiani reasoned to the audience: “Don’t do it because it’s better for society or representation, even though it is. Do it—” he says, pausing for a beat, “because you get rich.” Nanjiani—whose interracial rom-com The Big Sick had been nominated for Best Original Screenplay—was a refreshing addition to the diversity reel as its only Asian representative. His joke coyly played into stereotypes about Asian mercantilism, but it also got at the heart of one of Hollywood’s most pressing issues: the relationship between political representation and commercial success.

These issues come to the fore on the Oscars stage, where the ostensible crowning of Hollywood’s aesthetic achievements always underscores the realities of gender and racial inequality, not to mention box office numbers. As the Academy’s recent flirtation with a new Best Popular Film category suggests, the Oscars are increasingly struggling to justify their own cultural relevance; last year’s telecast ratings, for instance, hit a historic all-time low. The Awards have nonetheless, in recent years, taken seeming steps toward diversification—exemplified perhaps in Moonlight’s unseating of La La Land for Best Picture in 2017, or in last year’s serious consideration of Jordan Peele’s race-driven genre film Get Out, again for Best Picture. These encouraging developments correlate with the Academy’s addition of new members in recent years, as part of its general initiative toward diversification after the 2015 and 2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversies.

This year’s Oscars follow suit, most notably in nominating Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther for seven categories, including Best Picture—an outcome already anticipated by last year’s diversity reel, which heavily featured clips from Black Panther even before its release. Not only is Coogler’s film a superhero blockbuster hit that will hopefully get viewers to watch the actual awards telecast, but it’s an insightful meditation on African diasporic identity that has also been consistently recognized on the pre-Oscars awards circuit. Coogler’s film, which won Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the SAG Awards on Sunday, is now a legitimate dark horse candidate in the Oscars race. In addition, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has been nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director; it’s a provocative and difficult film not just about the history of white supremacy in America but also about the profound power of cultural images—postcards of Jesse Washington’s lynching, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—to shape our understanding of the world. (In a strange way, Lee’s film is one of those movies about the power of movie-making that the Academy so often likes to award Best Picture.) And the fact Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma—a 135-minute, Spanish-language, black-and-white, Netflix-distributed neorealist epic—has been nominated for everything from Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film to Best Sound Mixing is perhaps the most startling example that the Oscars are game to rethink the contours of the movie industry.

All together, these recent Oscar nominees represent a model of Hollywood coming to grips with the ways its prejudices should be challenged; they also render other representational absences more notable. While Nanjiani was a welcome inclusion to the Time’s Up diversity reel, his presence also came as an implicit reminder of Hollywood’s underrepresentation of Asian actors. The history of Asian representation in Hollywood is notoriously dismal, perhaps best summed up by the fact the only two Asians ever to be nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress are Ben Kingsley and Merle Oberon, respectively. It’s usually always a bad Oscars year for Asians when Ang Lee doesn’t have a film out, and the last Asian to be nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role was Hailee Steinfeld—who is one-eighth Filipino—for True Grit in 2011. Among the reasons one might resort to a biological definition of race, it seems, is when pressed to account for Asian representation at the Oscars. I don’t point all this out because it’s surprising news, but because it’s so relentlessly familiar.

Which is perhaps why it feels all the more disappointing, given the relative “boom” in Asian-produced and Asian-starred films in 2018, that this year’s Oscar nominations overlooked so many of them. To recap, last year saw a range of Asian-oriented films and performances, such as Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, a meditation on the waning of American cowboy masculinity at once gripping and tender, and which won Best Picture at the National Society of Film Critics; John Cho’s leading role in the crime thriller Searching; Lana Condor in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, unquestionably one of the best rom-coms of recent memory; Sandi Tan’s haunting documentary about memory and movie-making, Shirkers; Bing Liu’s intimate skateboarding documentary Minding the Gap; Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, with its unnervingly nuanced performance by Steven Yeun; Hirokazu Kore-eda’s devastating Shoplifters; Domee Shi’s animated short Bao, which got Shi the chance to develop a Pixar feature; and, of course, Jon M. Chu’s box office hit Crazy Rich Asians. Out of this list, only Minding the Gap, Shoplifters, and Bao are nominated for Oscars, and each in one category alone. The more glaring omissions—The Rider, Burning, and, in many ways, Crazy Rich Asians—suggest the ongoing limitations to how the Academy understands and registers diversity. Burning was one of the best films of the year, and it’s hard not to read its Oscars snub in terms of an unwillingness to nominate more than one Asian film for Best Foreign Language Film (something that has happened, it turns out, only once in the history of the Oscars, in 1994, though none of them won).

The release of Crazy Rich Asians last summer, in particular, sparked debates about the relative merits of aesthetic value versus racial representation, especially in the context of an all-Asian cast in a Hollywood studio film. Chu’s all-Asian blockbuster rom-com has been compared to Coogler’s all-black superhero film—a comparison formalized in the 2019 SAG nominees for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, which Black Panther ultimately won. The pairing of the movies, however, has encouraged critics to begin to think productively about how generic biases and political messaging in race-oriented films can variously enlist the white viewer’s escapist participation or implicate the white viewer’s historical guilt. That Peter Farrelly’s Green Book walks the line between the two poles—registering white historical guilt through the feel-good buddy-comedy genre—might be one of the best indicators that it could very well take home the Best Picture prize. That BlacKkKlansman (also a buddy comedy) does the same might be one reason it was nominated for Best Picture in lieu of a film such as Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You.

That black figures are frequently mobilized in films that attempt to think through America’s ongoing racial inequality is no surprise; the history of the nation necessitates it. But the awards inclusion of both politically incisive and aesthetically accomplished films this year like Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, Roma, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Hale County This Morning, This Evening suggests that Hollywood might, in the future, continue to foreground diversity in both humanizing and culturally challenging ways. For now, at least, we might understand why Crazy Rich Asians didn’t make the cut, considering its deeply problematic political messaging about the virtues of unbounded capitalism, as well as its genre: The last rom-com to win Best Picture was Annie Hall in 1978, which, especially in hindsight, might not be the cultural model of lighthearted romance worth endorsing.

It’s ultimately easy to argue that Chu’s film is not “Best Picture material,” but it’s also fairly easy to argue that it is at least as commendable as some other Best Picture nominees—such as, say, Bohemian Rhapsody. And while Black Panther’s thinking through blackness ranges from modern Oakland to an alternate un-colonized Africa, one wonders whether this level of racial nuance might also have been afforded to the Korean scenes of the film, which function largely as Orientalist background. Black Panther is hardly the first to adopt Asian aesthetics for the sake of other narrative purposes; Hollywood’s relationship to Asia has been more aesthetic than political—from Blade Runner to Kill Bill to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The few Asian films recognized by the Oscars in the past have been predominantly lauded for their cinematography and costume design, as in the case of Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993) and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). These films all notably take place in a safe, historicized—if not fantastical—past that does not implicate America, and least of all white America. In nominating such films, Hollywood subtly continues to show its commitment to “diversity” by awarding films that reinforce Orientalism rather than challenge or critique it.

So even though 2018 saw an increase of various Asian-oriented films and different types of Asianness, it is perhaps no surprise that the Academy is still lagging in its capacity to recognize them all. A possible explanation for the fact that Crazy Rich Asians and Burning—two films that meditate on contemporary U.S.-Asia relations—did not get nominated might be due to Hollywood’s inability to represent Asia outside of an exoticizing historical mode. That Hollywood conceives of contemporary Asia as primarily a business market, moreover, has not seemed to encourage any further diversification on that front. At the same time, we might also understand better why Shoplifters and Minding the Gap were acknowledged, given that the former is a relatively classical Foreign Language Film about contemporary “Japanese” precarity and the latter is a deeply “American” documentary that never explicitly comments on director Bing Liu’s Chineseness or immigrant background. In contrast, Chu’s and Lee’s films explicitly take up the shifting relations between America and “Asia” more seriously. Crazy Rich Asians spotlights modern Asian Americanness through a pan-Asian cast, while Burning meditates on the ambivalences of global translation (the film is adapted from a Haruki Murakami story that is itself an adaptation of a William Faulkner short story) and travel through contemporary South Korea.

Yeun, especially, brings to his Burning performance a degree of ambiguity that the Academy may not yet know quite how to read, but which will be undeniable in the future. As Hollywood continues to contend with its racial history at home, the increasingly diverse films of the present also demand that it acknowledge the shifting geopolitics of the movie industry abroad. Not just because it’s better for society and representation, even though it is. But because you might also just get rich.

Jane Hu is a writer and PhD candidate living in Oakland.