Chinese-born filmmaker Chloe Zhao, who told the story of financially stretched van dwellers in the United States in Nomadland, became the first Asian woman and only the second woman ever to win best director at the Academy Awards on Sunday.
The 39-year-old also took home the award for best picture, for the film, which stars actress Frances McDormand and a number of real-life nomads who travel the US looking for work. McDormand won best actress for the role – her third.
Zhao was born in China and lived in Beijing until age 14, when she went to boarding school in London. She later moved to Los Angeles where she finished high school and then attended film school in New York.
Despite early excitement in China over Zhao’s nomination, a backlash began after internet users dredged up old social media posts in which they claimed the film director had slighted her homeland. The ceremony is not being broadcast in China this year, nor in Hong Kong – a short documentary on the territory’s 2019 protests was also in the running for an award.
This year’s ceremony, which took place at Union Station in Los Angeles, marked a return to glamour and in-person celebrations – albeit under coronavirus health rules – after a year of virtual ceremonies. The event was also a further step forward for women, and people of colour.
“It was definitely one of the most diverse slates of nominees in terms of gender and race,” said Al Jazeera’s Rob Reynolds who is at the venue. “There were nine actors of colour in the acting categories. There were 76 different nominations for 70 women in a variety of categories.”
British actor Daniel Kaluuya, who first came to international attention in the 2017 black comedy horror Get Out, won best supporting actor for his role as the late Black Panther activist Fred Hampton in the drama, Judas and the Black Messiah.
Kaluuya, 32, emerged as frontrunner for the Academy Award after also winning at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and British BAFTA ceremonies.
Black revolutionary leader Hampton, was shot dead by Chicago police in 1969 at the age of 21.
Kaluuya, who was born in London to Ugandan parents, paid tribute to him as he held his Oscar on stage.
“What a man,” Kaluuya said. “How blessed we are that we lived in a lifetime that he existed. Thank you for your life.”
Meanwhile, Youn Yuh-jung was named best supporting actress Oscar for her role as a cantankerous grandmother in immigrant tale Minari.
Youn, 73, was the first South Korean actor or actress to win an Oscar. Last year, director Bong Joon Ho won best director as well as best film award for his black comedy thriller Parasite.
“Me being here, I cannot believe it,” Youn said, revealing that she was a huge fan of Brad Pitt, the film’s Executive Producer.