Are the Oscars Finally Giving Asian Talent the Recognition They Deserve?

Director Ang Lee and Jake Gyllenhaal on the set of "Brokeback Mountain"
Focus Features

For the first time, there are two Asian Americans in Oscar’s director race: Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”) and Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”). That’s notable, but it’s even more extraordinary considering only four Asians were ever nominated as director before this.

The four predecessors were spread over the decades: Hiroshi Teshigahara (“Woman in the Dunes,” 1965); Akira Kurosawa (“Ran,” 1985; he also won a special Oscar in 1989); M. Knight Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense,” 1999); and Ang Lee. Lee has chalked up three noms for directing, with wins for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain” and 2012’s “The Life of Pi”; he also scored two other noms as a producer (including for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”).

Following the four key wins last year for Bong Joon Ho and “Parasite,” it seems that Oscar is on a roll. If so, it’s about time.

On Oct 29, 1976, Variety ran a full-page ad under the headline “We are not all alike.” In an open letter, Asian Americans were seeking more diversity in roles, tired of being relegated to “sinister villains, China dolls, waiters, laundrymen.” As you may have noticed, Hollywood ignored the plea.

For much of the 20th century, Caucasians were cast in Asian roles, with such recurring characters as Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto. And the list of stars in “yellowface” is embarrassing, including Marlon Brando, Rex Harrison, Katharine Hepburn, Mary Pickford, John Wayne and, of course, Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and Luise Rainer, a German-born actress who won an Oscar as a Chinese peasant for 1937’s “The Good Earth.”

It’s ironic that Asians seem to be making strides in Hollywood at a time when there is a horrifying rise in anti-Asian violence in the U.S. Both in Hollywood, and in the general population, there is still a lot of work to be done.