Emil Guillermo: In the end, still more Asian American than any Oscars in history

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With Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” and Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” competing in the best director and best picture categories, and with actors Steven Yeun and Yuh-Jung Youn nominated, I was hoping the Oscars would have a slightly more Asian American flavor.

But–and I say that purposefully–the 93rd Academy Awards will be best known for Lil Rel Howery playing a game with actress Glenn Close, who was asked to identify if a certain song was Oscar nominated or a winner.

Of course, she did.

To the astonishment of fans of Close’s “Hillbilly Elegy” character, the actress identified the non-nominated song “Da Butt” from Spike Lee’s brilliant “School Daze,” an oversight that was “a f***ing tragedy,” said the bleeped Close to lip-readers.

Then to top it off, at Howery’s urging, she got up and danced “Da Butt.”

For a full five seconds.

#OscarsSoWhite is ancient history. Howery declared, “This is the Blackest Oscars of all time, y’all.”

But it was also the most Asian American of all time.

Director Chloe Zhao became the first woman of Asian descent to win the best director Oscar for “Nomadland.” She edged out Chung in that individual category, but I was rooting for his film, “Minari” in the Best Picture category. The movie, which is about Korean immigrants replanting their roots from one chicken-sexing job in California to another in rural Arkansas, lost out again to “Nomadland.”

But (that’s still this year’s operative word), “Minari” didn’t go home without an Oscar.

Yun-Jung Youn, the Korean actress who played the scene-stealing, card-playing grandmother in “Minari,” won the best supporting actress award. She beat out some tough competition in the category, namely Glenn Close, who then went on to steal the whole show.

Maybe if Grandma Youn karaoked “Da Butt”?

The Asian American narrative was still present throughout the show, which has always been an important barometer to the entire AAPI community, it seems. Seeing ourselves in pop culture is self-affirming. It shows we matter. We count. When our lives and our dreams play out on film, it offsets the moments we struggle to see ourselves as real Americans.

It’s been a struggle throughout the years. Remember in 2016 when the Asian kids came out as the accountants?

Or in 2015, when Asian Americans had a very minimal presence?

In 2013, our Oscar hope was a man who played Dr. Patel in “Silver Linings Playbook.”

And in 2020, there was no host but a lot of “Parasite.” That was Asian though, and not Asian American.

So this year was important.

Combined with the nationwide #StopAsianHate movement, I thought there was a chance “Minari” had a shot at best picture, best director, and best actor. And while Youn, who played the visiting Korean grandmother, won for best supporting actress, she was once again more an Asian in America, than Asian American.

Does it matter? When people say “Asian go home” and yell scapegoating slurs, it actually does.

I was hoping Academy members might see “Minari” as that rare personal depiction of an Asian American origin story to fill the gap in America’s ignorance about us.

That’s even though I thought Zhao’s “Nomadland” was a better overall film with a real poetic vision. It didn’t have any Asian Americans in it. But that’s OK; it was director Chloe Zhao’s unique Asian American lens. Born in Beijing but educated in America, she gave us a universal vision of an American phenomenon, capitalism’s diaspora within that drives some of us to seek our bliss living alone in a van.

There were so many great films this year. I liked the witty and dark “Promising Young Woman,” the me-too revenge tale that won best original screenplay. But I also loved the gritty film of betrayal within the Black Panthers in “Judas and the Black Messiah” and the insight of the “Trial of the Chicago 7.”

“Nomadland” just connected more with the psychic feel of our lockdown Covid times. We were all searching in 2020. Through Zhao’s eyes, I just felt a unique Asian sensibility at play that’s different from most of the directors out there now.

In her best director acceptance, Zhao talked about a game she played with her father where they would remember Chinese poetry together. She recalled the line, “People at birth are inherently good.”

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“I have always found goodness in the people I met everywhere I went in the world,” she said, then held up the award and added. “This is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves and in each other. No matter how difficult it is to do that.”

Cynical, dark nihilism? Not from Zhao, who is optimistic, trusting, and positive. That’s where the tension is in “Nomadland.” I keep waiting for the ax murderer to drive through and spoil things.

I think I have to meditate some more.

Other Asian American moments for which the award show merited an award:

Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson, better known as H.E.R., was victorious again. After a Grammy victory for her George Floyd song, “I Can’t Breathe,” H.E.R. won the best original song Oscar for “Fight for You,” from “Judas and the Black Messiah.” She gave a shout out to her mom, who was present and wins my “best cameo from a Filipino mother rooting for her daughter” award.

H.E.R. now has half of an EGOT. She needs an Emmy and a Tony next.

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Finally, my Sacheen Littlefeather Memorial Award for best overtly political statement in an acceptance speech on Oscar night goes to Tyler Perry. In accepting the Oscar’s Hersholt Humanitarian award, Perry gave one of the most direct and compelling anti-hate speeches you’ll ever hear anywhere.

“Just refuse hate,” he said. “Don’t hate anybody. I refuse to hate somebody because they are Mexican, or because they are Black or white or LGBTQ. I refuse to hate someone because they are a police officer. I refuse to hate someone because they are Asian. I would hope that we would refuse hate.”

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It was the only time the words “Asian” and “hate” were even near each other in a sentence all night. And then Perry offered a solution for the emotional ills of our divided country.

“And I want to take this Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and dedicate it to anyone who wants to stand in the middle, no matter what’s around the walls. Stand in the middle, because that’s where healing happens. That’s where conversation happens. That’s where change happens. It happens in the middle. So anyone who wants to meet me in the middle, to refuse hate, to refuse blanket judgment, and to help lift someone’s feet off the ground, this one is for you too.”

Make you want to bend the bamboo to the center? And it was the only speech to mention Asian hate. Instead of a screed, it was another positive feel good moment.

No one expected much from an Oscars ceremony held in a train station, with more Covid-related names on the credits than writers or hosts. But this one felt genuine, real and diverse, with recognition of Asians and Asian Americans.

Now, maybe if Youn, the sassy grandma, had done “Da Butt.”

No need to mark the occasion, but consider all the Oscars past where Asian Americans were left out.

No more. There were previews during the show of what’s brewing next. Just wait until you see Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) directing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” with a Latinx cast.

An explosion of diversity is around the corner.

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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