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Do 'Firsts' Still Matter At The Oscars? Historic Wins Of 2021 — And Why We Should Celebrate Them

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Chloé Zhao at the 2021 Oscars

Following a year filled with multiple racial reckonings and calls for increased diversity across media and film, the 2021 Oscars winners list may be the most diverse yet.

The Academy Awards has a long and unforgivable history of overlooking people of color and women who work both in front of and behind the scenes.

Last year, just one Black actor, Cynthia Erivo, was nominated at the ceremony. This occurred even after April Reign sparked the #OscarsSoWhite movement to challenge the ongoing lack of diversity seen in the all-white list of acting nominees in 2015 and 2016.

The movement has had delayed success as 2021 saw a record number of actors of color earning nominations. Viewers waited with bated breath to see if those nominations would actually turn into historic wins, and many found themselves satisfied with the results — at least for now.

Celebrating firsts can be a complicated line to walk. How do we embrace and honor diversity without ignoring the historical and ongoing lack of it?

We know all the diverse winners are talented and deserving, but we also know, and often forget, the many talented people of color who never made it to the Oscars stage before them.

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It also has to be acknowledged that while movies with higher numbers of diverse characters fared better at the box office this year, pandemic restrictions did prevent much larger, typically white-dominated, productions that may have whitewashed the competition.

The Academy Awards is consistently interrogated and criticized for ticking a diversity box once every couple of years whilst still retaining a predominately white, male list of honorees. So only time will tell if this year will prompt a new wave of continuous diversity.

For now, however, we can continue to hold the award show accountable while also celebrating some historical and ground-breaking Oscars moments.

Using the platform to pave the way for people of color, these historic winners are living proof that diversity matters.

Multiple milestones occurred at the 93rd Academy Awards, and while we can all agree some of these wins should have happened sooner, we should still celebrate the excellence of these diverse winners.

What were the historic wins for diversity at the 2021 Oscars?

Chloé Zhao: the first woman of color to win the Academy Award for Best Directing.

Zhao, a Chinese filmmaker, became the first woman of color and second woman overall to take home the award for best director for her movie “Nomadland.”

This was the first year more than one female director was nominated in the category as Zhao shared the space with Emerald Fennell for her film, “Promising Young Woman.”

The award was previously given to Katheryn Bigelow for her film “Hurt Locker” in 2010, meaning it has been 11 years since the statue was handed to a female director.

Zhao also picked up the award for Best Picture, becoming the second-ever Asian woman to win the award after Kwak Sin-ae’s historic 2020 win for “Parasite.”

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Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson: the first Black winners of the Academy Award for Makeup and Hairstyling.

The two women share the award with makeup artist Sergio Lopez-Rivera for their joint efforts on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Black women in hair and makeup styling play a crucial role in creating Black characters that represented and styled accurately. The significance of their win was not lost on Neal and Wilson.

"I stand here, as Jamika and I break this glass ceiling, with so much excitement for the future," said hair department head Neal. Of course, it is a shame that the glass ceiling has appeared impenetrable for so long, but each crack creates a space for other women.

"I can picture Black trans women standing up here, and Asian sisters, and our Latina sisters, and indigenous women, and I know that one day it won't be unusual or groundbreaking, it will just be normal," Neal continued.

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Travon Free: the first Black winner of the Academy Award for Best Short Film (Live Action).

Free, who co-directed “Two Distant Strangers,” was preceded by just three other Black nominees in this category.

Again, aware of the significance of this platform, Free expressed his hopes that audiences would become increasingly aware of the Black experience.

"James Baldwin once said the most despicable thing a person can be is indifferent to other people's pain," said Free. "So I just ask that you please not be indifferent, please don't be indifferent to our pain."

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Youn Yuh-Jung: the first Korean woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

While people of color were nominated reasonably widely across all acting categories, the supporting categories are where they truly prevailed.

Youn became the second-ever Asian actor to win the Best Supporting Actress award for her role in “Minari,” while Daniel Kaluuya took home the corresponding award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role his role in “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

Youn’s co-star Steven Yeun also made history by becoming the first-ever Asian-American actor to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Riz Ahmed was also nominated in this category for his role in “The Sound Of Metal.” Ahmed is the first Muslim to be nominated for Best Actor and the first person of Pakistani descent to be nominated in any category at the Oscars.

Hollywood certainly continues to have a long way to go, but last night's awards made strides toward greater representation for many and that deserves celebration!

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment. Keep up with her on Twitter for more.