Oscars’ Barrier-Breaking Nominees Are Glad to Be “Part of Something That Shifts the System”
The March 15 Oscar nominations presented the most diverse collection of nominees in history, with many barrier-breaking nods among them. But for the actors and filmmakers whose nominations are history-making, their accomplishments come with mixed emotions, steeped in the knowledge that it took 93 years for some of these firsts to come to fruition after decades of exclusion in the industry.
Judas and the Black Messiah director Shaka King is part of the first all-Black producing team to ever be nominated for best picture (he shares the nomination with fellow producers Charles D. King and Ryan Coogler). He likens the experience of being “the first” to his own upbringing and the opportunities afforded him and his family. “I grew up vegetarian in Bed–Stuy. My whole life, my parents were traveling to get fresh produce. Then, once the neighborhood got gentrified, these places started popping up selling organic goods. We were thankful that we didn’t have to travel so far, but it was also a reminder that our health didn’t matter,” he tells THR. “And this is similar — it’s never the kind of thing where you hear about ‘it’s the first time’ and you’re excited. You’re actually not excited — it’s terrible.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom hair department head Mia Neal and hairstylist Jamika Wilson also broke through this year to become the first Black women to be nominated in the makeup and hairstyling category, which was created in 1981. They, too, reflected on the paths that led them to this. “The recognition … is for every young hairstylist who dreams beyond the salon chair to work on a motion picture set. It is for the young child who tells their parent they want to be a hairstylist to receive a response of ‘That’s not a real career.’ The nomination is validation that hairstyling is an art form, a craft and a skill,” says Wilson. “It also shows every Black woman or man doing hair that we can achieve, and importantly that our talent and skill is equal and exceptional.”
Indeed, examining the reasons it took decades for some of these milestones to happen also weighed heavy on the mind of Steven Yeun, the first Asian American to be nominated in the best actor category. When asked by THR how it felt knowing that he was making history, the Minari star said it wasn’t his question to answer. “That feels like something somebody else would have a better answer for,” he says. “From my perspective, and I think a lot of Asian Americans’ perspectives, we’re just trying to do our job and we’re just trying to do a good job. And all these firsts and barrier-breaking moments are great, that I don’t ignore, but that’s not something we’re considering when we’re making these things. I guess that question is more for the system.”
However, Yeun adds that “from an individual perspective, I’m thrilled that I get to be part of something that helps shift the system.”
Minari broke through several other barriers as well, including making producer Christina Oh the first Asian American woman to earn a best picture nomination. And director Lee Isaac Chung also made history when he landed a best director nomination; the category had never before featured nominations for two directors of Asian descent in the same year (Nomadland’s Chloé Zhao is also nominated). “The fact that it is happening, I do hope that it’s helpful to the Asian American community at large,” says Chung. “I just hope that in some ways, Minari can pave the way for other filmmakers, other actors, other projects that maybe don’t fit within traditional boxes — if it helps those films get made in the future, I’d be so thrilled.”
Zhao (the first woman of color to be nominated for best director) and Promising Young Woman’s writer-director Emerald Fennell became just the sixth and seventh women to be nominated in the directing category. It’s also the first time two female directors have been nominated in the category in the same year.
“It’s very difficult to comprehend for me right now,” says Fennell, who made her feature film directorial debut with Promising Young Woman. “I’m very aware that lots of women have worked incredibly hard for years and years to make it easier for other women like me to get their films financed and made, so it feels like this is the result of so many other people’s hard work.”
This story first appeared in the March 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.