In a year characterized by anti-Black violence and anti-Asian violence that has motivated a global confrontation of systemic racism, many eyes were on the 2021 Academy Awards. Award shows are not exempt from their participation in systems that benefit white people, and, in fact, have been heavily criticized over the years for just that. The Oscars specifically have been scrutinized for their exclusionary practices, especially since 2015, when media strategist and diversity advocate April Reign created the hashtag and subsequent movement, #OscarsSoWhite.
“#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair,” Reign tweeted after 2015 became the first of two consecutive years in which all 20 Oscar nominations in acting categories went to white actors. Later that day, Reign’s hashtag was trending around the world.
How far have we come since 2015?
Six years later, and the list of nominees seemed to give us reason to celebrate, at least upon first glance. This year, there are a record-breaking nine people of color nominated in acting categories. For the first time ever, the Best Actor category is not majority white. The category also has the first Asian American ever nominated, Steven Yeun, for his performance in Minari. It has the first Muslim actor ever nominated as well, Riz Ahmed of Sound of Metal. Yuh-Jung Youn, also from Minari, is the first-ever Korean person nominated for an acting Oscar. Outside of acting categories, the first movie with an all-Black production team was nominated for Best Picture, Judas and the Black Messiah.
And this was not just a year for diverse representation in terms of race and ethnicity. For the first time in Oscars history, there are two women nominated in the Best Director category, Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell, a category in which only five women have ever been nominated and only one has won. Zhao, who directed Nomadland, is also the first woman of color to ever be nominated for Best Director.
But while it might seem like progress has been made, we cannot get comfortable. The Academy Awards have had “good” years in the past, such as in 2017 when seven people of color were nominated in acting categories, but yet 2020 was almost a repeat of 2015 and 2016, as Cynthia Erivo was the only person of color to get a nomination in an acting category. As Reign said, “The pendulum swings back and forth.” Thus, only time will tell.
How is Gen Z responding?
While we may see more representation in the 2021 nominations, we must also consider who holds the power.
Of course, Academy Award decisions are made by The Academy, which remains predominantly male and predominantly white, despite the A2020 initiative aimed at increasing membership diversity. And while recognition has increased for some marginalized groups, it still remains nonexistent for others, such as visibly disabled creators or trans folks. Viewership numbers for award shows have been hitting all-time lows, especially with young people, which speaks to an overwhelming frustration with recognized art simply not being representative of the world it depicts and the world that consumes it.
So while I will be tuning into the award show as I always do—by the way, Minari and Nomadland are my current faves—I’ll remain critical of the harm this institution still perpetuates. But most of all, I will be grateful for April Reign, because we owe the progress we do see not just to social media, but to a Black woman, Black Twitter, and the Black community at large.