It’s Been Over Two Decades Since A Non-White Best Actress Oscar Winner. Will That Change In 2023?

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The upcoming awards show could be a milestone moment for representation.

At the 29th SAG Awards on 26 February, Michelle Yeoh—the formidable Malaysian actor who gives an electrifying, multiverse-spanning performance in Everything Everywhere All At Once—was named Best Actress. “I think if I speak, my heart will explode,” she said upon reaching the podium, visibly emotional. “This is not just for me—this is for every little girl that looks like me. Thank you for giving me a seat at the table, because so many of us need this. We want to be seen, we want to be heard.” She made history with her win, becoming the first Asian actor to secure the prize, and marking only the fourth time a woman of color has taken it home, after Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball in 2002, and Viola Davis for The Help in 2012 and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 2021. That is staggering—but nowhere near as baffling as the fact that only one non-white woman (Berry) has received a Best Actress Oscar in that glittering awards show’s almost 100-year history.

Wind the clock back to that fateful night, more than two decades ago, and it’s heartbreaking to consider that Berry’s victory was then viewed as a watershed moment—one which was expected to usher in a new era of more diverse winners in a category that had so far been dominated by young, often blonde ingénues. Berry beat out four more established Hollywood stalwarts—Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Sissy Spacek and Renée Zellweger—to make it to the stage and when she did so, promptly burst into tears. “This moment is so much more than me,” she said. “This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett—the women that stand beside me, and for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door, tonight, has been opened.”

Over the next few years, more non-white women received Best Actress nods, including Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhané Wallis, Loving’s Ruth Negga, Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo and The United States vs Billie Holiday’s Andra Day. However, wins proved elusive. They came, instead, in the Best Supporting Actress category for the likes of Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls), Mo’Nique (Precious), Octavia Spencer (The Help), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Viola Davis (Fences), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Yuh-Jung Youn (Minari) and, most recently, Ariana DeBose (West Side Story). This was perceived by some as progress, but the question remained: why were wins by women of color seemingly more palatable to the Academy when they were relegated to the supporting category? 

That question was even more potent considering that some of these performances—most notably Davis’s in Fences—were ostensibly lead turns that were campaigned in supporting. They stand in stark contrast to, say, Michelle Williams’s performance in 2022’s The Fabelmans, which many expected to be campaigned in the Best Supporting Actress category, but was instead run in Best Actress and landed the actor an Oscar nod.

There was a moment early last year, before campaigning had kicked off, that brought hope that the narrative would be different come the 2023 Oscars: industry chatter around the impending release of Chinonye Chukwu’s Till and the prevailing wisdom that its accomplished lead, Danielle Deadwyler, could very well snag the Best Actress prize. Then, other frontrunners emerged: not only Yeoh, but also Viola Davis for The Woman King. For the first time, it seemed like there could be more Best Actress contenders of color than not. But sadly, it wasn’t to be. After a last-minute, A-list-driven campaign for To Leslie, Andrea Riseborough made the shortlist, as did Ana de Armas for the divisive Blonde—and both Deadwyler and Davis were left out. Yeoh was the sole non-white hopeful.  

Her awards season so far has been something of a rollercoaster: Yeoh scooped the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, giving a triumphant speech about the “incredible fight” it’s taken to get to this point in her career, but then lost out at the Critics’ Choice Awards and BAFTAs to Tár’s Cate Blanchett. That SAG win was crucial, though—over the past decade, SAG’s Best Actress recipients have lined up with the Academy’s choices a whopping eight times (on the two occasions it didn’t, the races were particularly close: Glenn Close versus Olivia Colman in 2019, and Viola Davis versus Frances McDormand in 2021.) It means Yeoh and Blanchett are now neck and neck as they approach the Oscars, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who will soar ahead in the final days of voting. However, it’s undeniable that a victory for Yeoh would be both supremely well deserved and infinitely more meaningful.

Detractors would say that Blanchett’s is the stronger performance—the acting veteran is, indisputably, incredible as the prolific conductor Lydia Tár—but it should be noted that she already has two Oscars (for Best Supporting Actress for The Aviator in 2005, and Best Actress for Blue Jasmine in 2014). A third would perhaps confirm her status as an industry titan but, considering her expansive and unparalleled body of work, are we still in need of yet more confirmation? Meanwhile, for Yeoh, an Oscar would be life-changing: her name would forever be preceded by the phrase “Academy Award winner”, and it should result in her getting meatier parts, after a decade of being criminally underused in Hollywood.      

It’s also important to remember that acting Oscars are very rarely, if ever, won based on a performance alone. It always has more to do with the narrative: the campaign the actor has run; the story they’ve told about themselves in the interviews they’ve given; whether or not they’re considered to be overdue; and how their film has captured the zeitgeist better than its competitors. Beyond that, it depends on who the members of the Academy—still an overwhelmingly white voting body— relate to, see themselves reflected in and wish to anoint as a shining symbol of the industry at that particular point in time. If prizes were handed out purely on merit, it’s difficult to believe that only one non-white woman would have taken home the Best Actress Oscar in 94 years, especially considering that people of color have been in front of the camera practically since the inception of moviemaking. 

Yeoh already deserves all the plaudits for coming closer to claiming the Best Actress statuette than any other woman of color in the past 21 years, but here’s hoping she reaches the podium on 12 March—and that, this time around, her win triggers actual change and blows the door off its hinges for all of the women who follow.

This article was originally published on British Vogue.

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