There will no doubt be plenty of history-making wins at the 2017 Oscars — be it the potential for La La Land to sweep after making history with its 14 nominations or Viola Davis becoming the most nominated black actress in Oscars history. The one bit of nomination history I'm most interested in is Dev Patel's nomination for Lion. You see, Patel is the third Indian actor to have an Oscar nomination in the 87-year history of the award ceremony. This makes his nomination a time for personal pride, as well as a watershed moment for Asian actors and Asian representation in film.
But first, let's focus on Patel. Patel joins actors Ben Kingsley and Merle Oberon in the trio of actors of Indian descent that, to date, have earned Oscar nominations. Patel's reaction to his nomination was beautiful and heartfelt — not a surprise from one of the warmest, most down-to-earth actors working today. PopSugar reported on Patel's Oscars reaction, and it's this portion that perhaps stands out the most:
"What makes this moment so much more poignant is that I'm in India right now. This enthralling country holds such a deep place in my heart, and it is where Saroo's journey was born. 'Lion' reaffirms the message that love is not dictated by the color of your skin, not by race, gender, sexuality, social status, or origin. It is a message I am proud to be spreading during these uncertain times. This will forever be one of the most memorable experiences of my life."
Patel's focus on the universality of love is an important reminder of what we, the people, need to hold onto in these uncertain times. His statement acknowledges the monumentality of his nomination in the context of the intersection between race and film and in his own personal context. A nomination for Patel is important because it is recognition that stories centered on Asian lives are attention-worthy.
Patel broke out from his small U.K. following into the American mainstream with Slumdog Millionaire, and American audiences took notice. We've embraced him and his talents. The depths of that talent and passion for truthful representations of Indian people and their lives continued in the pair of Exotic Marigold films. Now, Lion sees Patel going back to his Indian roots and telling yet another honest, brilliant story. I am not surprised he was nominated, but I am further hopeful his momentum continues because of his work and the history he is making.
His nomination is not only well-deserved, but it shines a spotlight on an aspect of film representation that tends to get pushed to the side in conversations on diversity in film: Asian representation in American film (and while we're at it, television too). We currently only have one television show that focuses squarely and for the most part positively on Asian-American life: ABC's Fresh Off the Boat. Yet at the same time, in 2017, we are still discussing the deeply negative effects of whitewashing Asian characters in film. Doctor Strange and the upcoming Ghost in the Shell were just recent examples of this, but whitewashing Asian characters and the use of yellowface are deeply entwined with the history of film.
When we talk about representation and diversity in film, our conversation tends to focus on black representation. This is accurate, correct and fair, and I am in full support of this crucial line of conversation. However, there is a need to bring other communities of color into the conversation. The focus on these unseen communities comes in fits and starts, but perpetual focus could effectively change the game. Diego Luna's recent public affection for a Rogue One fans' reactions to Mexican representation on film is a positive example of how we need to support and elevate all communities of color to a more positive and accurate strata of film and television. It's possible to give actors of color a platform in ways that accurately represent them and make for great film and television.
Patel's nomination is historic, moving the conversation in a progressive direction. Not only do I wish him the best of luck this Oscar season (I hope you do too), but I hope that this is just another in a long and forthcoming line of successes for Asian representation in film and television.
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