Keeping It ‘Reel’: Actors of All Backgrounds Take Hollywood By Storm


Photo by Dave_B_

At this year’s Oscars ceremony, voices from all backgrounds took home the gold.

A hush falls over the live audience at the 2022 Academy Awards ceremony as Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-Jung finishes reading the nominees for Best Supporting Actor. The tension in the air could be cut with a knife as the five nominees wait with bated breath. Whose performance was the most dynamic, most touching, most life-changing in the eyes of the Academy? In the wake of what could be considered the most wild Oscar ceremony yet, it seems that anything could be waiting in that envelope.

The envelope is opened, and Yuh-Jung gasps in joy, clutching it to her heart. The cheering begins before she can even utter the name of the award’s recipient: Troy Kotsur. At first glance, it may seem like just another award presentation, but the significance of the moment becomes clear when Kotsur takes the stage and begins to sign.

Kotsur made history that night as the first Deaf actor to win for Best Supporting Actor, honored for his portrayal of Frank Rossi in the film “CODA.” He’s the second Deaf performer to be recognized by the Academy altogether, preceded by Marlee Matlin in the 1986 film “Children of a Lesser God.” His win sheds a light on how far Hollywood as a whole has come in one aspect in particular: equal representation.

“CODA” stands for Child of a Deaf Adult and tells the story of a hearing teenage girl being raised by her Deaf parents. The Deaf parents featured in the movie are played by Matlin and Kotsur, who perform in ASL, which is captioned in English. In a world where many Deaf characters are portrayed by hearing artists, the award was a welcome accolade to say the least. The film also took home Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay.

While the film wasn’t deemed perfect as far as representation goes, the feature was a great leap forward to bring new perspectives to light. The inclusion of Deaf performers brings awareness to the community that may have been missed otherwise, and seeing Deaf actors recognized by the Academy empowers performers of all abilities to tell their stories.

And the Deaf community isn’t the only minority group in the spotlight this awards season. Additionally, stories from a wildly, wonderfully diverse set of racial and ethnic backgrounds are coming into the light. Best Animated Feature winner “Encanto” takes place in Colombia and dives deep into the rich culture of the area, with music performed in Spanish and penned by Puerto Rican songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda. Young girls all over the world delighted in seeing a Disney protagonist who looked like them in Mirabel. Other members of the Madrigal family also present a wide variety of body types and builds, from the dainty Isabela to the buff, brawny Luisa.

For another Oscar favorite, “West Side Story,” diverse representation is something of a redemption story. Until December of 2021, “West Side Story” was synonymous with a shady history involving its Puerto Rican characters. The 1961 film, which follows a star-crossed love story between white and Puerto Rican gangs, was groundbreaking in its time for its bold take on racism and racial equality. However, the film featured few Puerto Rican actors and presented most of the Latinx characters with brownface. Rita Moreno, the only Puerto Rican actress in the original film, told HuffPost, “I remember saying to the makeup man one day―because it was like putting mud on my face, it was really dark and I’m a fairly fair Hispanic―and I said to the makeup man one day…Why do we all have to be the same color? Puerto Ricans are French and Spanish…’ And it’s true, we are very many different colors, we’re Taino indian, we are black some of us.”

Thankfully, the 2021 remake of the film set out to repair this offense the best they could. After a rigorous casting process, the film ended up with all Latinx actors portraying the Puerto Rican gang, The Sharks. Latinx actors of all colors and backgrounds light up the silver screen, including breakout actress Rachel Zegler as Maria and Broadway veteran David Alverez as Bernardo. Moreno even makes an appearance. This revamped retelling of “West Side Story” allows viewers to watch this amazing tale without the bitter taste of harmful stereotypes in every scene as the 2021 remake allows dozens of Latinx actors to tell their own stories.

Additionally, Asian-led Marvel film “Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings” received a Visual Effects nomination. Although it did not win, the film is highly regarded for its portrayal of the first Asian superhero in the MCU. Black actor of “Fresh Prince” fame Will Smith also took home Best Leading Actor—though his on-air altercation with Chris Rock may have put that title in jeopardy.

Finally, this awards season has brought much more awareness to the LGBTQ+ community and actors of all sexual orientation and identification. Historically, Hollywood as a whole has often let most of its LGBTQ+ characters fall into tropes that are one-dimensional at best and offensive and harmful at worst. Until recently, LGBTQ+ representation meant the perpetuation of stereotypical gay characters who often become the butt of a joke. But as our culture becomes more accomodating and accepting, LGBTQ+ voices have made their stories known through films and television programs such as “Love, Simon,” “The Prom,” and “Everybody’s Talking About Jaime.” But perhaps the biggest success for the LGBTQ+ community this awards season was actress Ariana DeBose’s Supporting Actress win. Portraying Anita in the “West Side Story” remake, DeBose made history as the first openly queer woman of color to win an Oscar—an accolade she is very proud of. “To anybody who has ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever, or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us.”

So, although the film industry still has a long way to go to achieve full equality in the media, we have made some amazing steps in the right direction. Seeing diverse voices of all kinds portrayed on the silver screen gives hope to a rising generation who can finally see themselves in the films they watch. What was your favorite film this Oscar season?