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Opinion Finally, representation is more than a hope in Hollywood

Stephanie Hsu, left, Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan in a scene from "Everything Everywhere All At Once." (Allyson Riggs/A24 Films/AP)
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An earlier version of this column included a reference to a performance by Rob Schneider. Schneider is of Filipino descent on his mother's side. This version has been updated.

The luminous Michelle Yeoh said just the right thing Sunday evening as she became the first Asian woman to win the Oscar for best actress: “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities.”

This year’s Academy Awards will be remembered as the night Hollywood discovered the Asian diaspora. The truth is that Yeoh, who is 60, should have been celebrated for her enormous talent decades ago. Producers and directors should have long seen her as what she so clearly is — in outdated parlance, a “leading lady” — and given her roles that showcased her emotional range, not just her martial-arts moves.

But better late than never, I suppose. For an industry that once routinely cast White actors in “yellowface” to play Asian roles, Sunday night has to be seen as a genuine breakthrough.

Yeoh, who is Malaysian of Chinese descent, won for her performance as Evelyn Wang in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Ke Huy Quan, a Vietnamese-born Chinese American whose family fled Saigon in 1978, won best supporting actor for playing Yeoh’s husband, Waymond Wang, in that same film. Daniel Kwan, who is Chinese American, and his filmmaking partner Daniel Scheinert won the best original screenplay and best director awards. And they all returned to the stage at the end, when “Everything Everywhere All At Once” won the Oscar for best picture.

The sci-fi spectacular "Everything Everywhere All at Once" scooped seven trophies at the 95th Academy Awards — including best picture and best film editing. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Oh, and the award for best original song went to “Naatu Naatu” from the epic “RRR,” a product of the huge Indian movie industry — not “Bollywood” but “Tollywood,” referring to films in the Telugu language, which is spoken in southeastern India.

That is a level of Asian representation we have never seen before at the Oscars. In the past, the message from Hollywood to Asian actors and creators has ranged from, effectively, “squeeze yourself into this stereotyped pigeonhole” to “just stay the hell away.”

When I was growing up, television stations still occasionally broadcast the old Charlie Chan movies from the 1930s, which starred a Swedish actor, Warner Oland, as a Chinese American detective. More acclaimed movie stars such as Anthony Quinn, Rex Harrison, John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Alec Guinness also donned “yellowface” makeup to play Asian characters. Even Katharine Hepburn, arguably the brightest star of all — the only winner of four acting Oscars, all for best actress — wore makeup to play a Chinese woman in the 1944 film “Dragon Seed.”

Guest Opinion: For us weird Asians, ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ is a second chance

Unfunny, offensive portrayals of Asians is not ancient history. As recently as 2007, comedian Rob Schneider, whose mother is of Filipino descent, provoked anger by wearing prosthetics and makeup to play an Asian character in “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry.” (He was nominated in that year’s Golden Raspberry Awards for worst supporting actor — but lost to Eddie Murphy, who was given the Razzie for his portrayal of an Asian character, Mr. Wong, in “Norbit.”)

In recent years, the more common Hollywood treatment of Asian characters has been to flatten them into two-dimensional caricatures — the science nerd, the overbearing mother, the kung-fu master.

The 2018 rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians” broke new ground by letting talented Asian actors sparkle as protagonists of a traditional “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy marries girl” story, complete with corny, eye-dabbing ending. But even in that film, Yeoh — playing, yes, the overbearing mother — had to use all her mastery of subtlety and nuance to convey more than an inch of depth.

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” star Michelle Yeoh is the first Asian woman to win the Oscar for best actress. Here's a look back at her most iconic roles. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

What makes “Everything Everywhere All at Once” so revolutionary is that it takes what could have been a stereotype — the hard-working Chinese American immigrant family running a laundromat — and makes it universal. Actually, the screenplay by Kwan and Scheinert makes that setup multiversal, with Yeoh and her family zapping back and forth across so many parallel universes that I lost count. The film gave Yeoh the opportunity to be, well, everything — beleaguered, glamorous, fierce, defeated, indomitable. It was a chance for an actor to give us a tour de force, and Yeoh delivered.

Yeoh labored in the Hong Kong film industry and on the fringes of Hollywood for many years before truly breaking through. Her co-star Quan was a child star — he played Short Round in 1984’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and Data in 1985’s “The Goonies” — but struggled to find adult roles and was cast in no movies at all between 2002 and 2021. “My journey started on a boat. I spent a year in a refugee camp,” he said during his acceptance speech. “Dreams are something you have to believe in. I almost gave up on mine.”

Writer-director Kwan told the Academy Awards audience that “my impostor syndrome is at an all-time high.” But it shouldn’t be. Hollywood is slowly learning that you don’t have to be White to be the real deal.