The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is a landmark year for diversity at the Oscars. Why did it take nearly a century?

Top row, from left: Yuh-jung Youn, Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Emerald Fennell; Second row: Ryan Coogler, Charles D. King, Chloé Zhao, Leslie Odom Jr., Shaka King, Daniel Kaluuya; Third row: Riz Ahmed, LaKeith Stanfield, Steven Yeun, Andra Day (Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP; Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SCAD; Andrew Toth/Getty Images for the Hollywood Reporter; Rich Fury/Getty Images for PRADA; Ernesto S. Ruscio/Getty Images for RFF; Amy Sussman, Morgan Lieberman, Dia Dipasupil, Neilson Barnard, Frazer Harrison, Rich Fury, Tibrina Hobson for Getty Images)

At last year’s Academy Awards, comedian Chris Rock joked that Cynthia Erivo, the only Black actor to receive a nomination in 2020, had done “such a good job . . . hiding Black people” in her role as Harriet Tubman that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “got her to hide all the Black nominees.”

This year, Black actors are represented in nearly all of the top categories, and — for the first time in the 93-year history of the annual awards show — all the acting accolades could go to people of color.

There are other milestones to celebrate, as well, including breakthroughs for actors of Asian heritage and for female directors. The striking contrast between last year’s ceremony and the one airing Sunday on ABC has lent an air of hope for change in an industry that, like other institutions, has been forced to reckon with its racism and sexism. But whether it signals a long-lasting shift remains to be seen, said Rashad Robinson, president of the civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change.

“My hope is that this is a sign that we’re moving forward,” Robinson said. But in Hollywood, as with any industry, he says, “ongoing, sustained change around race does not happen overnight, nor does it happen because of a single flash point.”

Robinson said it’s important to keep in mind that this moment follows efforts by activists, organizations and Hollywood insiders — including the viral #OscarsSoWhite campaign, launched by April Reign in 2015 when White actors accounted for all 20 of that year’s acting nominees. In the years since, the academy has added more than 800 film industry professionals from various backgrounds to its member roster. But the work is far from over.

Even as the nominations include many long-overdue achievements, there are still lapses that highlight disparities within the academy as an institution. In one of this year’s most glaring slights, the academy did not nominate Spike Lee’s searing Netflix drama “Da 5 Bloods” for any of the major categories, overlooking a widely acclaimed performance by Delroy Lindo in the process.

And while the Oscars are still viewed as the preeminent awards show for the entertainment industry, academy voters aren't the only power brokers of awards season.

Why do the Oscars matter?

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association — the voting body behind the Golden Globes — has come under intense scrutiny after the Los Angeles Times reported in February that the nearly 90-member organization has not included a single Black member in more than 20 years.

The HFPA reportedly refused to even watch “Girls Trip,” Malcolm D. Lee’s 2017 comedy centered on Black women, despite gamely nominating “Bridesmaids” — similarly themed but with a predominantly White cast — in 2011. The Oscars also honored “Bridesmaids” with nods for best screenplay and supporting actress.

The HFPA, like the academy, has the power to open (and close) doors for actors, filmmakers and others in Hollywood, Robinson said. “That is why accountability, to make sure what they do is fair, is important.”

Below, we take a look at some of this year’s historic achievements — and the hurdles that had to clear for them to happen.

Actors of Asian descent have a breakthrough year

Last year, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” picked up trophies across the awards-show circuit before sweeping the 2020 Oscars ceremony, where it became the first non-English-language film to win best picture. But amid the many accolades, the film’s actors — widely praised by critics — were overlooked in the acting categories. That oversight reflected a pattern: Only a handful of actors of Asian descent have been nominated in the acting categories. The few winners include Miyoshi Umeki, a Japanese American actress who won best supporting actress for 1957’s “Sayonara”; Ben Kingsley, whose father was of Indian descent, won best actor for Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biopic “Gandhi.”

This year marks several historic nods for Asian and Asian American actors. Steven Yeun, who plays the ambitious patriarch of a Korean American family in Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” made history as the first Asian American actor to receive a best-actor nomination. The “Walking Dead” alum, who was born in South Korea and raised in Michigan, has expressed a certain ambivalence about the historic nature of his accomplishment. “It’s not something I really concern myself with,” he told the New York Times. “I carry with me my culture and who I am, and if that challenges or breaks through things, that’s wonderful.”

For Steven Yeun, making a film about immigrants wasn’t a political statement. It was an ‘exercise in humanity.’

Yeun’s “Minari” co-star, veteran South Korean actress Yuh-jung Youn, earned a best supporting actress nod, making her the first Korean woman to be nominated for an acting Oscar.

The best-actor category also includes Riz Ahmed, who plays a heavy-metal drummer who begins losing his hearing in “Sound of Metal.” The British actor, born to Pakistani parents, is the first Muslim to be nominated for best lead actor. He’s also the first person of Pakistani descent to be nominated in an acting category.

“I just think the more and more people that can find themselves celebrated and included in these moments, the better. That’s what storytelling is about,” Ahmed told the New York Times after his historic nomination. “It’s about trying to stretch our idea of who we are. And when we celebrate a wider range of stories, and a wider range of storytellers, it can help more and more people to find themselves in our culture.”

Riz Ahmed knows his worth. With the gut-wrenching ‘Sound of Metal,’ he ensures you do, too.

The best-director category includes two women for the first time

Before Kathryn Bigelow’s 2010 win for her visceral war drama “The Hurt Locker,” just three women had received best-director nominations: Lina Wertmüller, for the 1975 Italian-language film “Seven Beauties”; Jane Campion, for the 1993 romance drama “The Piano”; and Sofia Coppola for her semi-autobiographical 2003 film “Lost In Translation.” In the decade following Bigelow’s triumphant win (in a race that included her ex-husband, “Avatar” director James Cameron), only one woman was included in the best-director category: Greta Gerwig, for her 2017 coming-of-age dramedy “Lady Bird.”

But Gerwig’s name was not on the best-director nominee list last year for “Little Women,” even as her acclaimed adaptation landed in six categories, including best picture and best adapted screenplay.

Female directors have been consistently left out of the best-director contest. Barbra Streisand was shut out of the 1983 race despite having won a Golden Globe for helming “Yentl”; nearly a decade later, she was again left out of the category when “The Prince of Tides” earned a slew of nods in other categories, including best picture. “Seven nominations on the shelf, did this film direct itself?” Billy Crystal quipped during the Oscar ceremony’s opening monologue.

“We’re still fighting it,” Streisand told the Los Angeles Times after the nominations were announced in 1992. “It’s as if a man were allowed to have passion and commitment to his work, but a woman is allowed that feeling for a man, but not her work.”

This year, which saw a record 70 women nominated for Oscars across 23 categories, marks the first time in Oscars history that two women are in the running for best director. “Nomadland” filmmaker Chloé Zhao, who is Chinese, is the first non-White woman to be nominated. And Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”) is on an exclusive list of filmmakers who have been nominated for their directorial debut and is the first woman to be nominated for a solo directorial debut.

“I feel like I’ve benefited from years and years and years of other people’s work, of other women working tirelessly for years and decades so that someone like me can get my film financed,” Fennell recently told the Wrap. “It’s amazing, but I also wish it had happened sooner.”

This film depicts the betrayal and assassination of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Black Panther Party. (Video: Warner Bros. Pictures)

An all-Black filmmaking team is nominated for best picture

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” director Shaka King’s historical drama about Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton and the Black FBI informant who betrayed him, is nominated for six Oscars including best picture. That makes the film’s all-star production team — Shaka King (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Ryan Coogler and Charles D. King — the first all-Black filmmaking team to receive a nod for the ceremony’s top honor.

Coogler directed “Black Panther,” Marvel’s only best-picture nominee to date. Charles D. King, unrelated to the film’s director, is a former talent agent who became the first Black partner for a Hollywood talent agency when William Morris and Endeavor merged to become WME.

But despite their credentials, the trio still had to do some convincing to get Hollywood on board with “Judas and the Black Messiah.” A recent Hollywood Reporter feature recalled that Charles D. King’s multiplatform company MACRO, geared toward increasing representation for people of color, initially put up the first $10 million of the film’s budget.

Shaka King told the magazine the historic milestone he and his co-producers reached — nine decades into the Oscars ceremony — is “bittersweet.”

“Is it because there weren’t three Black people willing to produce movies? Probably not,” he said. “Was it because we didn’t have the access to the kind of capital to make a big, sweeping studio feature? Maybe a little bit.

“Was it because we made that stuff and [Hollywood] didn’t recognize it?” he added. “Maybe a little bit.”

Three of the five supporting actor nominees are Black

The unprecedented diversity of this year’s best-actor nominees — including Chadwick Boseman’s posthumous nod for Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — is echoed in the best supporting actor category.

While a number of Black actors including Denzel Washington, Mahershala Ali and Morgan Freeman have won best supporting actor at the Oscars, the category has never before included three Black nominees in one year. Leslie Odom Jr. earned a nod for playing crooner Sam Cooke in Regina King’s “One Night In Miami”; Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield are both nominated for their roles in “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

That’s right: The academy nominated both Stanfield and Kaluuya in the supporting category, leading many to ponder the film’s true lead. Though the story is told mainly from the perspective of Stanfield’s character, informant Bill O’Neal, Kaluuya offered a captivating performance that has steadily collected awards — a Golden Globe, BAFTA and Critics Choice Award among them — this season.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” has received some criticism for focusing its narrative on an FBI informant, but Hampton is the clear hero of the film. “He’s been silenced, and been erased and been assassinated, physically and culturally,” Kaluuya told The Washington Post of the Black Panther Party leader he portrayed. “This is an opportunity to put him in his rightful position.”

Two Black women are nominated for best actress for the first time in nearly 50 years

In 2015, when Viola Davis became the first Black woman to win lead actress in a drama at the Emmys (for her turn as Annalise Keating in “How to Get Away With Murder”), she offered Hollywood a poignant and electrifying challenge in her acceptance speech: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” she said. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Fittingly, Davis — already an Oscar winner for her supporting role in Denzel Washington’s 2016 adaptation of “Fences” — faces historic odds at Sunday’s ceremony, where she’s nominated for best actress alongside Carey Mulligan, Frances McDormand, Vanessa Kirby and Andra Day. Day’s nomination, for her haunting turn as Lady Day in Lee Daniels’s “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” makes this the first time in 48 years that two Black women have been nominated for best actress. (In 1973, Cicely Tyson was nominated for “Sounder,” while Diana Ross earned a nod for playing Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues.”)

“Black women have done sensational work and the performances have been there throughout history. We always have to work so much harder,” Day told the Los Angeles Times. “So I look forward to the day when it’s just normal to have whoever did the best work in those categories . . . well-represented.”

Both have a solid chance of taking home the trophy, according to the experts at prognostication website Gold Derby, though an upset is always possible (Mulligan won the prize at the Critics Choice Awards, and McDormand won the BAFTA). Day was victorious at the Golden Globes earlier this year, but Davis’s recent win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards could tip the scales. A win by either actress would be historic in and of itself: Halle Berry is the only Black woman to have won a best-actress trophy, for “Monster’s Ball” in 2002.

All four winners of the acting awards could be people of color

With a win for Davis (or Day) in sight, it seems likely that actors of color could make history at Sunday’s ceremony. Boseman is expected to be honored with a best-actor award for his stirring final performance. He would be the third actor — after Heath Ledger and Peter Finch — to posthumously win an acting Oscar.

Youn’s historic nomination is also likely to translate to a win Sunday night: She has already earned a SAG award and the BAFTA, both bellwethers for the top Oscars categories. A win for Kaluuya seems just as likely.

For Color of Change’s Robinson, the real victory is in the breadth of nominees and the films represented in the nominations. “You have movies that center the Black experience as it relates to culture and art to civil rights to the intersection of those things,” he said. “You have both breakout performances, as well as folks who are veterans with long track records.”

But overdue progress can be a double-edged sword. “That mix only indicates how deep the well of talent is and how outrageous the denial of recognition over the years has been,” Robinson added.