Analyzing Asian: This year’s Academy Awards need Asian representation

Shutianyi Li/Daily Trojan

2018 was a great year for Awkwafina. The New York- born Asian American rapper, comedian and actress triple threat recently starred in two blockbuster movies. She became the first Asian woman to host “Saturday Night Live” since Lucy Liu did in 2000. She’s the friend that everyone wants to have — badass and funny as hell. She will also be one of the presenters at the 91st Academy Awards alongside “Crazy Rich Asians” co-star Constance Wu, both of whom were unceremoniously snubbed in 2019 Oscar nominations.

2018 was a great year for all Asians in Hollywood, not just Awkwafina. “Crazy Rich Asians,” the only mainstream Hollywood movie to feature an all-Asian cast since “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993, proved a critical and commercial success. The feel-good romantic comedy illustrated that Asians could truly be a box-office draw.

Alongside “Crazy Rich Asians” was “Searching,” a thriller drama starring Korean American lead John Cho, that also enjoyed both critical and commercial acclaim. Additionally, “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” — a Netflix film starring Lana Condor —  saw viral success, adding to the Asian victories in film in 2018.

Asian Americans no longer seem like an anomaly in Hollywood. These three successful films were released within months of one another, each surpassing expectations and receiving widespread acclaim. Award nominations soon followed and “Crazy Rich Asians” was doing admirably. Everything was going the right way.

Taking awards out of the conversation, “Crazy Rich Asians” has already made history for Asian representation. However, awards ceremonies provide a kind of representation that cannot be achieved with just mainstream success. Awards bestow an element of prestige upon a movie, cementing them into the mainstays of cinematic history.

There are two types of people in this world: Those who pretend to give Oscars acceptance speeches in the shower and those who are liars. After suffering through 20 years of watching white actor after white actor give those very acceptance speeches I’ve facetiously imagined myself giving, I’ve always wondered when it would come time for an Asian American to give one.

I had a glimpse of such a moment during the Golden Globes, when Sandra Oh accepted her award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Drama Series for “Killing Eve.” Seeing her in tears thanking her parents made me cry almost instinctively; it was unsurprising when I saw almost all my Asian friends share posts announcing Oh’s victory on Facebook.

The message we felt was unanimous — we did it. Her victory felt like a victory for all of us, as if her win was an invitation for all of us to join her seat at the table. Heading into the Academy Awards, I was excited to see “Crazy Rich Asians” on the nominations list. “This is it,” I thought. I was finally going to see people who looked like me recognized for their achievements on Hollywood’s biggest night. Only, I wouldn’t.

“Crazy Rich Asians” failed to receive a single nomination, not even for less prominent categories — costume, makeup or design. While I was disappointed and surprised to see the shutout at first, I quickly realized that I was foolish for being surprised at all. After all, one look at the Wikipedia page for “List of Asian Academy Award winners and nominees” and you would see a laughably small list of Asians nominated in the top five categories. In fact, there have only ever been two Asians nominated in the Best Actor or Actress categories, and both have been white-passing — one even actively denied she had any sort of Asian ancestry.

Now, I’m not saying that “Crazy Rich Asians” deserved to sweep the Oscars and collect nomination after nomination. But there is also no reason why it shouldn’t have. There seems to be myriad convenient excuses as to why “Crazy Rich Asians” didn’t perform well in the Academy Award nominations — a major one being that romantic comedies traditionally don’t do well in this awards show to begin with. However, that doesn’t stop other comedies from picking up nominations: “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” received one for Best Original Screenplay. Additionally, the Academy seems to be tossing tradition out the window. “Black Panther” picked up seven nominations, including one for Best Picture, which is usually unheard of for a blockbuster superhero movie. Such a feat is a phenomenal achievement, especially for a trailblazing movie like “Black Panther.” If the film was able to garner so many the nominations, why couldn’t “Crazy Rich Asians?”

I don’t really know if there is an answer to that question. Maybe to the Hollywood elite, “Crazy Rich Asians” just wasn’t good enough to warrant a nomination. Maybe they thought that by nominating “Black Panther,” they had fulfilled their diversity quota and no longer needed to nominate any other movie featuring other minorities. Or maybe, they thought that instead of giving an exceptional, bamboo ceiling-shattering movie the recognition it rightfully deserves, they could just invite a few of its stars to present some awards as a consolation prize.

I can almost hear the voices of the 84 percent white, 69 percent male members of the Academy in my ears saying, “Nice try, Asians. Solid effort. Better luck next time!”

Albert Qian is a junior writing about Asian American identity. His column, “Analyzing Asian,” runs every other Wednesday.