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Oscars Diversity: Historic Firsts for Non-Acting Categories and Ceremony Accessibility

Courtesy of ABC
Chloe Zhao became the first woman of color to win best director, among other non-acting categories that saw diversity firsts at the 93rd Academy Awards.

#OscarsSoWhite was coined by April Reign in 2015 to describe the lack of diversity among the 20 acting nominees, but when it came to inclusion at the 2021 Oscars, it was categories behind the camera that saw multiple milestones take place.

Chloe Zhao is now the first woman of color (and second woman overall) to win best director. Taking the stage early Sunday evening at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles (in two other breaks from tradition), she quoted the opening line of 三字经 (Three Character Classic), the 13th-century text that many Chinese children around the world have been taught to memorize: "人之初,性本善" (at birth, people are innately good). Zhao later became the second Asian woman, after Parasite's Kwak Sin-ae last year, to pick up an Academy Award for best picture.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom's Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson are the first Black winners in makeup and hairstyling, sharing the award with makeup artist Sergio Lopez-Rivera. "I stand here, as Jamika and I break this glass ceiling, with so much excitement for the future," said hair department head Neal, who in the trio's acceptance speech described the racial barriers her father, a Tuskegee Airman and Northwestern graduate, faced amid his accomplishments. "Because I can picture Black trans women standing up here, and Asian sisters, and our Latina sisters, and indigenous women, and I know that one day it won't be unusual or groundbreaking, it will just be normal."

After three previous Black nominees in best live-action short, Two Distant Strangers' Travon Free became the first Black winner in the category, sharing his award with his co-director, Martin Desmond Roe. Free, a former writer for The Daily Show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and Black Monday, used his acceptance speech to draw attention to police killings, which disproportionately impact Black people. "James Baldwin once said the most despicable thing a person can be is indifferent to other people's pain," said Free. "So I just ask that you please not be indifferent, please don't be indifferent to our pain."
'Two Distant Strangers' Directors' Oscars Tuxedos Honor 17 Black Americans Killed by Police

Going into the ceremony, there was a real possibility that the Oscars could see four non-white acting winners for the first time ever. But in the end, actors of color prevailed only in the supporting categories. In her final charming acceptance speech of the season, Minari's Yuh-Jung Youn forgave everyone who butchered her name; dedicated her Oscar to her first director, Kim Ki-young; and wondered if she won because of "American hospitality for Korean actor."

Meanwhile, Judas and the Black Messiah's Daniel Kaluuya paid tribute to his parents for conceiving him as well as to the man he played, the late Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton. "[Hampton and the Party] showed me how to love myself. With that love they overflowed it to the Black community and to other communities, and they showed us the power of unity," said Kaluuya. "When they play divide and conquer, we say unite and ascend. There's so much work to do, and that's on everyone in this room."

Also striking a note of unity was Tyler Perry, who dedicated his Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to "anyone who wants to stand in the middle," he said, describing the anti-Black racist attacks his mother witnessed throughout her life and declaring his refusal to judge or hate anyone, controversially including police officers alongside a list of racial groups. "That's where healing happens, that's where conversation happens, that's where change happens."

Elsewhere, non-white winners at the 2021 Oscars included Jon Batiste sharing best original score for Soul with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; H.E.R., Tiara Thomas and D'Mile winning best song for Judas' "Fight for You"; and Mexican sound engineers Jaime Baksht, Michelle Couttolenc and Carlos Cortes sharing best sound with their Sound of Metal teammates Nicolas Becker and Phillip Bladh.

Among everyone who took home at least one statuette at the 2021 Oscars, 25 are white men, eight are white women, four are Black men, four are Black women, two are Latino men, one is a Latina woman and three are Asian women. H.E.R., who is of Black and Filipino descent, is counted in two categories. Two people won multiple Oscars, Zhao and best actress/best picture winner Frances McDormand.

Inclusion at the Oscars wasn't demonstrated only in the winners list. Bong Joon Ho presented best director in Korean, with English translation by Sharon Choi, while Marlee Matlin presented the two documentary categories in American Sign Language. According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, this year's ceremony (produced by Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins) featured for the first time an ASL interpreter in the media room, as well as an accessible stage with a ramp and closed captioning and audio descriptions sponsored by Google (which aired an ad during the ceremony featuring a Chinese American man who is a CODA, or child of deaf adults).


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