Political Context: The 2023 Academy Awards

Ryan Hiscocks, Contributing Writer

The multiverse head-trip “Everything Everywhere All At Once” swept five of six major categories of the Academy Awards on March 12. Less than 10 years after #OscarsSoWhite, the undeniable talents of Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Daniel Kwan were invited to center-stage and finally awarded with gold. 

Michelle Yeoh said her Oscar represented, “a beacon of hope” to children everywhere who “look like” her. Earlier, Ke Huy Quan proclaimed, “This is the American Dream!” The gratitude expressed for one of our country’s defining industries on its most important night should have come as no surprise. 

Since its inception more than a century ago, the U.S. film industry has been one of our most beloved exports to the rest of the world. Immigrants regularly confess their expectations of life in the United States were shaped by the stories they watched at their local theaters in the towns they left. 

The American Dream for many is a reflection of the American screen. This places the film industry square in the middle of our current politics of inclusion.

Since the end of WWII, the U.S. economy has been the largest in the world. Many industries in our country inherited, and continue, our legacy of racial and sexual discrimination. The film industry is no outlier in this regard. 

Michelle Yeoh is only the second woman of color to win Best Actress in a Leading Role and she was presented her award by the first woman of color to earn that honor, Halle Barry. Diversity is a fact of American life, inclusion is much less so.   

At its heart, the American Dream is no more complicated than the economic ambition we have for our futures. It is limitless aspiration shaped by the immense size of our economy. It is the intrinsic opportunity to take part in a commercial ecosystem creating over $23 trillion of value annually. The living embodiment of this optimism is the fact that millions of people every year representing every country on Earth try to move here to live peacefully and work hard.

The reality of the American Dream and the opportunities that are routinely denied is a more complex issue. The denial of opportunity was front and center at the Academy Awards in 2015 when no person of color was nominated for best actor in any category, resulting in the #OscarsSoWhite. 

The widespread belief that immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, are taking economic opportunity away from native born Americans is a driving narrative of our immigration debate.

This line of reasoning was best represented in the 2016 presidential campaign of Republican candidate Donald Trump, who promised to build a wall that Mexico will pay for. Last night during the Academy Awards, three winners whose family histories trace back to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam, among other places, showed us another side of immigration.

They are the immigrants who most of us are or were. Ninety-nine percent of all Americans have a family history that starts somewhere else and the vast majority are working and living peacefully together. Aside from our Native American population, we all come from immigrants. There is no other way about it. 

To deny the immigrants of the future opportunities we rely on to fulfill the ambitions of our lives, our “pursuit of happiness” if you will, would be to embrace a most unjust hypocrisy. It would also be to our long-term cultural and economic detriment.

As I say to my students every semester, “we will have a very real problem when no one is trying to come here.”