Chloe Zhao made history on Sunday night by becoming the first woman of color and the first woman of Asian descent to earn best director at the Academy Awards. Zhao, 39, won the best director at the 2021 Oscar for Nomadland. She is also the only second woman in the 93-year history of the Oscars to win the category.
The first woman to win in the category was Kathryn Bigelow for Hurt Locker. This year was also the first year that two women were ever nominated for best director. Zhao was joined in the category by Emerald Fennell, the director of Promising Young Woman.
The film that landed her the achievement — Nomadland — is a contemplative drama set in America's Midwest that also won best picture. Accepting the award onstage, Zhao, donning braids and white sneakers, thanked her fellow nominees and the entire cast and crew of the film.
"This is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves, and to hold on to the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult is to do that," Zhao said. "You inspire me to keep going. Thank you."
She also recalled reading and memorizing Chinese poems and texts with her dad growing up in Beijing, including the 'Three Character Classic.' She cited a particular line that informed her life philosophy: "People at birth are inherently good."
"It might seem like the opposite is true, but I've always found goodness in the people I've met in the world," Zhao said. "This is for you. You inspire me to keep going."
Nomadland's story follows Fern — played by Frances McDormand — a woman who loses her job in the Great Recession and goes wandering, taking odd jobs, meeting nomads and living in a transient community. Nomadland is Zhao's only third feature film after her 2016 debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me and 2018 breakthrough The Rider.
Zhao's win is also a sign that better times could be on the horizon for a category that's seen dismal female representation over the years. In the Oscars 93-year history only seven women have been nominated, including Zhao and Fennell. The others were Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties), Jane Campion (The Piano), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) and Bigelow (Hurt Locker).
However, the Oscar win wasn't a win as she had formidable completion from the likes of Fennell, Thomas Vinterberg (Another Round), David Fincher (Mank) and Lee Isaac Chung (Minari). But Zhao had the last laugh. In fact, the entire award season has been hers.
The film has been has been celebrated everywhere ever since it was premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. Zhao was named best director at the Golden Globes, BAFTA Film Awards, Directors Guild Awards and Critics Choice Awards. This definitely makes her the most decorated filmmaker in a single awards season.
That said, hailing Zhao only for Nomadland would be demeaning her past achievements. Through this award season, Zhao besides accepties trophies has also been busy editing her next movie, Marvel's Eternals that hits theaters on November 5. The blockbuster-sized superhero film features an all-star cast led by Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani and Richard Madden, and marks historic firsts for deaf, South Asian and LGBTQ characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Oscar win will make her the first Academy Award winner for Best Director to helm a Marvel project.
Coming for a middle class family, Zhao before entering the big league of filmmakers had cut her teeth and cemented her naturalistic and empathetic style in independent films.
Her earlier two films Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider are both set in South Dakota and star untrained actors. They tell fact-based stories, focused on the human condition. These two films gave her the maturity to direct a delicate project like Nomadland.
"I tried to focus on the human experience and things that I feel go beyond political statements to be more universal — the loss of a loved one, searching for home," Zhao had told IndieWire last year about Nomadland. "I keep thinking about my family back in China — how would they feel about a cowboy in South Dakota, or a woman in her 60s living in America? If I make it too specific to any issues, I know it's going to create a barrier. They'd go, 'That's their problem.'"
Zhao also signed a film Dracula in February, but it will be a new take on the Count for Universal Pictures. Both Dracula and Eternal are sharp left turns for Zhao, someone who is known for her quiet character studies.