Even before the Academy Awards are held on Sunday evening, history already has been made. For the first time in the Academy’s 93-year history, two women have been nominated in the Best Director category, with both Nomandland director Chloe Zhao and Promising Young Woman director Emerald Fennell receiving nods. Additionally, while five other women have been recognized in this category in previous years, Zhao has become the first woman of color to ever be nominated in the Best Director field. It's an historic achievement. And if things shook out differently this year, One Night in Miami director Regina King could have joined Zhao in sharing that distinction. That's how talented the female directors of 2020 were. A masterclass.
Now it’s time for a female director of color to win the Oscar for Best Director.
As it currently stands, The Hurt Locker filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow is the only female filmmaker to have won Best Director at the Oscars. In 93 years, male directors reportedly have achieved the highest level of direction in the film industry 92 times. This isn’t a “Social Justice Warrior” plea. There’s just no way that those odds shake out.
You can argue that women, to date, have received less opportunities than men to direct feature films in Hollywood, and you would be correct. But those tides have been turning, with the Academy slowly catching up with the times. Since 2004, when Sofia Coppola became the third woman to be nominated in the Best Director field, the Academy has been steadily improving its recognition of strong female filmmakers including Bigelow (2010) and Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird in 2018 -- though she also deserved, but didn't receive, a nod for the magnificent Little Women in 2020.
A win for Chloe Zhao would be entirely justified. The haunting and beautiful Nomadland essentially is a two-person showcase, with one being lead actress Frances McDormand and the other being her talented director. Given that the movie has less of a strong narrative hook on which to hang its hat, it’s up to Zhao to immerse us in the nomadic lifestyle, to properly understand (and even embrace) the factors that send McDormand’s character out onto the road and away from the trappings of societal living.
But a win for Chloe Zhao also needs to happen so the industry can begin to better balance its scales. Zhao is one of many incredibly talented female filmmakers who deserve not only more opportunities to tell compelling stories, but also the recognition that has eluded them for generations. You are seeing a full-tilt pivot towards more hiring for directing gigs (though still, not nearly as strong as is necessary). Now it’s time for the Academy to begin making bigger strides towards gender equality, and that means not only nominating women in the Best Director category, but giving them equal opportunity to take home the statue at the end of the night.
This doesn’t mean voting for a woman because she is a woman. Talent ultimately prevails, and the best directing needs to be the ultimate bellwether. But for decades, it feels like the Academy has treated an Oscar nomination for a female director to be the “win.” That no longer can be the case. And a Best Director win for Chloe Zhao on Sunday night for Nomadland would help to solidify the idea that in Hollywood, that no longer will be the case.