Rami Malek, Regina King, and Mahershala Ali each received Academy Awards for their respective performances in Bohemian Rhapsody, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Green Book during Sunday’s 2019 Oscar telecast, but their individual victories also collectively notched a milestone achievement for racial representation in Hollywood.
The trio’s triumph stood as the first time in the history of the Academy Awards that a majority of a single ceremony’s acting winners were people of color, as King (portraying an iron-willed matriarch in Barry Jenkins’ James Baldwin adaptation) and Ali (playing jazz pianist Don Shirley in the Peter Farrelly-directed biopic) became the 17th and 18th black performers to win for acting, while Malek’s conquest for his role as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury made him the first person of Egyptian descent to top a performative category.
Until Sunday’s broadcast, the highest number of actors of color to win at a single Oscar ceremony held at two, per a Time study published in 2016. The most recent occurrence happened at the 2017 Oscars, when Ali won Best Supporting Actor for Moonlight and Viola Davis earned her first Best Supporting Actress accolade for Fences.
Ali’s subsequent win for Green Book made him the first black actor in history to take two honors in the category, while only one other black actor — Denzel Washington — has more than one competitive Oscar to his name (one for his supporting part in Glory, the other for leading Training Day).
The only other years that saw more than one actor of color winning at the same Oscar ceremony are 2007 (Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland, Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls), 2005 (Jamie Foxx for Ray, Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby), 2001 (Washington for Training Day, Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball), and 1983 (Ben Kingsley for Gandhi, Louis Gossett Jr. for An Officer and a Gentleman).
Though its membership is still predominantly white, the Academy has implemented initiatives to increase diversity among its voting ranks in recent years — especially after the social media-backed #OscarsSoWhite controversy targeted the inclusion of all-white acting nominees at the Oscars in both 2015 and 2016. Since then, the Academy has invited record numbers of film professionals to join, including 928 invitees in the 2018 class.
“Women and people of color don’t have the same blind spots as the minority of white straight men that currently dominate American storytelling. The more diverse the Academy is, the greater variety of stories and storytellers that will be seen and promoted,” Dear White People director Justin Simien told EW last summer, shortly after his invitation to join the group was announced. “I want more Moonlight moments on that stage. A sudden blast of light on all kinds of stories traditionally kept in the shadows…. I don’t think the job of the Academy is to merely reflect the box office. There are other awards shows for that. Its power is that it can expand the box office to help audiences recognize the very best of our industry in its myriad forms even when they might have missed it at first.”
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