Six years ago, Chinese-American filmmaker Chloe Zhao released her first feature film. Now, she is set to become the most accomplished director this awards season. Her rise to the top reflects a significant shift in Hollywood – women behind the camera are starting to receive their due recognition, too.
Last week, Zhao won the Best Director award for her film Nomadland (2020) at the 73rd Directors Guild of America Awards. This historical win marks the first time that a woman of color has won the award. She is also the second woman in history to win, after Kathryn Bigelow, who won for The Hurt Locker (2008).
The 39-year-old also won Best Director at this year’s Golden Globes Awards. She again became the first woman of color to win the award and the second woman in the award’s history.
During her acceptance speech for the Golden Globe, Zhao explained her passion for directing using a quote by nomad Bob Wells.
“‘Compassion is the breakdown of all the barriers between us, a heart-to-heart bounding. Your pain is my pain. It’s mingled and shared between us.’ Now, this is why I fell in love with making movies and telling stories ’cause it give us a chance to laugh and cry together and it gives us a chance to learn from each other and to have more compassion for each other, so thank you, everyone, who made it possible for me to do what I love.”
Zhao and Reinventing The Western
Historically, the Western-style movie only needs to fulfill two criteria to fit into the genre: cowboys and Clint Eastwood. Zhao, however, grew up with a different interpretation of country living. As a child, she often took trips to Inner Mongolia with her family. Her travels, and her fascination with the American West, fueled her passion for documenting life on the outskirts of society
“I remember visiting Inner Mongolia as a kid and feeling something that I didn’t feel in Beijing,” Zhao told Vogue in a 2018 interview.
Zhao’s debut feature film, Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015), features an indigenous Lakota boy living on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. He struggles with his choice to stay on the reserve or create a new life in Los Angeles. In her second feature film, The Rider (2017), a cowboy searches for a new means of living after a brain injury halts his career in the rodeo.
Each film tells an often-untold story of life outside of the US’s cities. Zhao has been hesitant to categorize her films as “fictional documentaries” in the past. Even so, each of these films cast actors as alternative versions of themselves. The lives they live on-screen coincide with the lives they live when the camera turns off.
The same goes for her latest award-winning film Nomadland. This time around, actress Frances McDormand isn’t a nomad. McDormand is a “triple crown” actress, having earned an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony award for past films.
The movie follows McDormand as “Fern,” who travels across the country taking on odd jobs amid the 2008 recession. Even though McDormand is a full-fledged actress, the movie captures her (mostly) as her true self, and with actual nomads.
“Our industry is such an ageist industry,” Zhao told The New York Times. “Someone like Frances McDormand who is just so authentically herself, who has not tried to erase those lines on her face or cover that up to fit into the industry — to me, she’ll be relevant forever.”
Bridging The Gap For Other Women of Color in Hollywood
The 93rd Academy Award show will air on Sun, April 25. According to AP News, only seven directors in history have not gotten an Oscar for best director after earning the best director award at DGA. This means that Zhao has a pretty good chance at making yet another historic win.
Zhao follows in the footsteps of notable women of color directors such as Ava Duvernay and Lulu Wang. Both women have released critically acclaimed films in the past few years.
Although Zhao feels grateful to have won many firsts this awards season, she notes that sometimes those “firsts” are long overdue.
“Sometimes a first feels like a long-time coming, isn’t it?” Zhao told Variety after her Golden Globes win. “I’m sure there’s many others before me that deserve the same recognition.”
She added, “I just love what I do. And if this means more people like me get to live their dream and do what I do, then I’m happy.”
Mia is a recent graduate of Penn State and an aspiring writer. When she is not writing for RoyalTee Magazine, she enjoys listening to music, learning graphic design, and reading.