Michelle Yeoh broke records last week as the first Asian actress to win Best Actress in a leading role as Evelyn in Everything Everywhere All At Once. In honor of her, and so many that came before her, we are taking a look back at some of the past winners and activists that made history at the Academy Awards for never giving up on respect, diversity, and equality.
Hattie McDaniel’s Historic Win - 1940
For her role in the controversial film Gone With The Wind, McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress, the first Black person to ever win an Oscar. Unfortunately, this was still during segregation in America, so she was forced to sit in the back of the auditorium. There would sadly be a long road ahead for equality in the film industry.
Sidney Poitier’s Historic Win - 1960
Poitier became the first ever Black person to win Best Actor, for his performance in Lilies of the Field. It would not be until 2002 that another Black actor, Denzel Washington, would win the award. Poitier was actually blacklisted from Hollywood several years prior for his involvement with Black leftist activism.
Sacheen Littlefeather’s Speech - 1973
Marlon Brando was announced as the winner for Best Actor for his performance as Vito Corleone in The Godfather. In his place, he sent up Apache activist Sacheen Littlefeather to decline the award on his behalf due to the racism against Native Americans in the film industry. She was met with cheers and boos, and John Wayne had to be restrained from physically attacking her by security guards. It was a powerful moment in Oscar history, showcasing the inherent bigotry of Hollywood, and the continuous harmful portrayal of Indigenous people in film.
Halle Berry’s Historic WIn - 2002
Starring as Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball, Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win Best Actress. In her speech, she declared that “this moment is so much bigger than me”, and dedicated it to all the women of color who have been shut out of this opportunity.
Moonlight - 2017
When it was time to announce Best Picture at the awards in 2017, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty read out La La Land, as it is shown on the envelope. But the cast and crew of La La Land soon realize they had read the envelope for Best Actress in a Leading Role - Emma Stone, who just won for her role as Mia. Producer Jordan Horowitz held up the real envelope and declared Moonlight the true winner.
While this moment was certainly shocking, it diverted the conversation away from Moonlight itself, an incredible film detailing the coming-of-age of a queer Black man as he struggled with homophobia, relationships, and accepting his identity. Because of the confusion with the La La Land debacle, the director, Barry Jenkins, never got to read out the speech he wrote for his win. However, the film made incredible strides- Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim person to win an Oscar, and it was the first LGBT mass-marketed film to have an all Black cast.
Parasite - 2020
Directed by Bong Joon-ho, Parasite was the first non-English language film to win Best Picture. Ironically, the themes of Parasite about wealth, inequality, and late-stage capitalism were lost on many of the Academy members, yet the film was deservedly celebrated, marking a new era for foreign films at the Oscars.
Everything Everywhere All At Once - 2023
The film itself made history, telling the story of a Cantonese immigrant family and their queer daughter. In the acceptance speech at the Screen Actors Guild awards, James Hong, who plays Gong Gong, brought up an incredible point about the film industry.
Being in Hollywood for so many years, Hong saw firsthand how white actors would perform in yellowface and how Asian actors were shut out of roles, because they were not “box office”. But Everything Everywhere All At Once changes the game, allowing Asian voices to be celebrated and successful. Michelle Yeoh was well aware of what the win meant, declaring in her acceptance speech, “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope”.
Illustration: Holly Ward