From Regina King’s Best Supporting Actress win to the ladies of Black Panther, women of colour ruled the Oscars stage.
The first two Oscars of the 91st Academy Awards were handed out to women of colour.
Regina King was named Best Supporting Actress for her role in If Beale Street Could Talk, and then minutes later filmmaker Chinese-American Elizabeth Chai won best Documentary for her movie Free Solo.
Because the Oscars did not nominate a single female filmmaker in the Best Director category this year, Chai was one of the few female directors recognised at the ceremony. For her to win an Oscar, the second of the night, was a powerful reminder of the importance of diverse voices in the film industry.
And that was only the start. The remaining hours of the Oscars set about spotlighting the work of talented, ceiling-breaking, history-making women of colour. Like Ruth E Carter and Hannah Beachler, the costume designer and production designer respectively on Black Panther.
Tonight, both women became the first black women in the history of the Oscars to win awards in their categories. Carter’s win came on her third nomination, after scooping nods for her work in the seminal films Malcolm X and Armistad. This was Beachler’s first nomination and, in fact, the first nomination ever for a black person in the field of production design.
“I dreamed of this night and I prayed for this night honestly…what it would mean not just for me but for young people coming behind me,” Carter said at a press conference backstage at the Oscars.
But wait, there’s more. Bao, the first short film directed by a female filmmaker at Pixar, was named Best Animated Short. The movie tells the story of a woman so desperate to be a mother that she bakes a little dumpling baby, nurtures him, and then, finally, eats him.
Created by Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Domee Shi, the movie has broken ground in the world of animation. “To all of the nerdy girls out there who hide behind their sketchbooks, don’t be afraid to tell your stories to the world,” she said in her acceptance speech. “You’re going to freak people out, but you’ll probably connect with them, too, and that’s an amazing feeling to have.”
Women of colour were called out, too, by Alfonso Cuarón as he collected the award for Best Director for his movie Roma, which tells the story of a young nanny in Mexico City in the Seventies, based loosely on Cuarón’s own upbringing at the time. Its star Yalitza Aparicio was the first indigenous woman ever to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.
“Thank you to the Academy for recognising a film centred around an immigrant woman,” Cuarón said. “One of the 70 million people around the world without worker’s rights.”
And let’s not forget Rayka Zehtabchi, the Iranian American director whose short film Period, End of Sentence about menstruation poverty in India was named Best Documentary Short.
That’s just the winners. What about the many, many women of colour who walked the red carpet at the Oscars or were invited onto the stage to present awards? We’re talking about the stars of Crazy Rich Asians: Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan and Awkwafina. We’re talking about Marvel’s Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett and Tessa Thompson. We’re talking about Amandla Stenberg. We’re talking about Jennifer Hudson. We’re talking about Queen freakin’ Latifah.
‘Twas not always thus in Hollywood. Which is why it is important. Which is why it matters so much.
Only three black women have ever won an Oscar outside of an acting category. Two of those wins happened tonight. Two women of Chinese descent won Oscars tonight. An Iranian woman won an Oscar tonight, and for a movie about periods no less. Regina King became the eighth black woman to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
In fact, tonight is the first night in the history of the Academy Awards where more than one black woman won an Oscar.
It is no secret that the film industry has long sidelined the voices of people of colour, but the 2019 Oscars seemed to herald the coming of a new era. Black Panther, the highest grossing movie of the year, picked up three awards including two for its women of colour designers. Crazy Rich Asians, one of the highest grossing romantic comedies of all time, was the belle of the ball, its stars dominating the red carpet and the presenting stage.
This is representation put resplendently into action, a sign that real change is coming to the film industry. This, only two years after a damning study was released that revealed that only 16% of all female characters in film and television were black, with 7% latina and 7% Asian.
Not so in 2018. 11 of the highest grossing movies were led by women of colour, from Crazy Rich Asians to A Wrinkle In Time. And they made money too: according to new research, films with casts comprised of minority ethnicities received the highest median global box office sales, and they also made the biggest return on investment.
Women of colour belong onscreen, and women of colour belong behind the cameras too, as directors and editors and cinematographers and composers and sound mixers and VFX supervisors and production and costume designers. The wins across the board at the Oscars by women of colour both in front of and behind-the-scenes were a reminder of how much better Hollywood looks when it has diverse voices pushing it forward.
“We won’t have to wait for another first, we have the first,” Black Panther’s Carter said backstage, while celebrating her win. “We’ve opened up the door. Finally, the door is wide open.”