Riz Ahmed and Steven Yeun Make History at the 2021 Oscar Nominations

For the first time, two men of Asian heritage are up for best actor. Their films, “Sound of Metal” and “Minari,” are also up for best picture.

By Sarah Bahr

It’s been nearly 20 years since a man of Asian heritage notched a best actor nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

But this year, for the first time in the 93-year history of the Academy Awards, there are two: Steven Yeun (“Minari”), who was born in South Korea and raised in the United States, and Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”), who is a Brit of Pakistani descent. Both Ahmed and Yeun are first-time nominees.

Their inclusion is especially notable because despite a spate of Asian-led films in recent years, including last year’s best picture winner, “Parasite,” the academy had failed to recognize the performers.

Just two actors of Asian heritage have ever been nominated in the category: The Russian-born Yul Brynner (“The King and I”), and Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi,” “House of Sand and Fog”), whose father is Indian. Brynner and Kingsley each won the award once.

Yeun and Ahmed have some tough competition: The other three nominees this year are Chadwick Boseman (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), who won a posthumous Golden Globe for best actor in a drama, Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”) and Gary Oldman (“Mank”).

The New York Times’s co-chief film critic A.O. Scott called Yeun’s performance in “Minari,” as a Korean immigrant father who moves his in family to the Ozarks, “effortlessly magnetic.” Scott praised his proclivity for finding “the cracks in the character’s carefully cultivated reserve, the large, unsettled emotions behind the facade of stoicism.”

Ahmed won acclaim for his performance as a drummer who loses his hearing in “Sound of Metal,” which the Times critic Jeannette Catsoulis praised for its “extraordinarily intricate” sound design. She singled out Ahmed for his “tweaking urgency that’s poignantly credible — he’s a study in distress.”

Even though only four men of Asian heritage have ever been nominated for best actor, the situation is far more bleak in the best actress category, where only one woman of Asian heritage has ever been nominated (Merle Oberon for the 1935 drama “The Dark Angel”), and none has won.

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