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Two Women in the Best Director Race — Two Very Different Receptions

The independent film world is flush with love for Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. While women have usually had a harder time finding fame behind the camera — never a problem for their male counterparts — Gerwig has now become justly celebrated. As it was with literary legend Joan Didion, another renowned Sacramento icon, beyond Gerwig’s talent and success her fans can admire Gerwig’s image: her style, her cool, the viewpoint she embodies. Lady Bird is branded with an attitude that we associate with Gerwig — her taste in music, her upbringing, the clothes she might have worn, the shaggy dyed hair. Familiar characteristics that we know through her roles onscreen unavoidably add to her luster, and it’s all come together miraculously, with the kind of adoration and worship reserved only for directors like Woody Allen (way back when) or Paul Thomas Anderson. These factors have undoubtedly helped propel Lady Bird into becoming one of the most buzzed about films of the season, so much so that many are predicting it to win Best Picture and/or Best Actress, and for Gerwig to maybe become only the fourth woman in history to crack the Best Director category.

Lady Bird has 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with 160 reviews in. Men love it as much as women do. By any measure it’s a success, and it represents a chance for Gerwig to become a prominent director in Hollywood, or at least elevate her status among the more rarefied art house crowd. Gerwig now has left her mark with a film that is not only impressive but one that is fused with her persona, just as Didion did with her essays and novels.

How fortunate we are, in the same year, to see the remarkable Dee Rees find equal acclaim for her second film, Mudbound, which has a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (with 148 reviews). Because she’s not an actress, because she’s not part of the cultural consciousness the way celebrities can be — with none of the attendant mythmaking — Rees’ recognition has been more lowkey. And yet, in perfect tune with more muted ballyhoo, she has quietly made one of the best films of the year. Ambitious, deep, thoughtful, and original, Mudbound carved a path down the center of my being I have not gotten over and will never forget. For many, Lady Bird signified something meaningful and universal for those who grew up in white middle class suburbs and longed for culture anywhere, or to find some sort of foothold as an adult — it reminded me much more of The Graduate than it did The 400 Blows.

Mudbound is the polar opposite of Lady Bird in every way. For the art house crowd and for Oscar voters, racism is a subject that should be paid attention to every so often but not so much as to overtake the regular order of business. Get Out is already taking that slot, it appears (going by the awards so far), and that leaves Mudbound out. How frustrating it’s been to say to people this is one of the best films of the year and have them agree but then talk about how Gerwig has the better shot in all ways. And I agree with that assessment. She does. At this point, Mudbound, so deserving of many category nominations from Best Picture to Screenplay to Supporting Actor and Actress to Song, seems like the longest of long shots.

Some of the reasons why Dee Rees is being treated so differently from Gerwig are outlined above. But there’s unfortunately something else to consider under the surface. The same bias that exists in America at large remains entrenched in both arthouse circles and mainstream Hollywood, more often than not blocking full recognition and appreciation black filmmakers, especially women. We see this slant manifest every day in the media’s political coverage: neglecting the impact of  people of color, the press was and is obsessed with white Hillary voters (grossly mischaracterized as out-of-touch 50ish boomers and thus deemed irrelevant), or entranced Bernie millennials, again mostly white. 94% of black women turned out to vote for Hillary, but even when they bring it their inexhaustible value is disregarded.

Despite recent encouraging inroads, film criticism and the awards race is strangely and continually and stubbornly white-centric. It’s rare for the film about the black experience, made by black filmmakers, to break into in the conversation at all, and when they do, the standards are always ridiculously high.

It is an embarrassment of riches that we have, in the same year’s Oscar race, Get Out AND Mudbound. Lady Bird AND Mudbound. All three are deserving of praise and attention. It’s just I see one being continually celebrated and the other, well, not so much. So you’ll say there I go again with my middle child lament about how it’s not fair. Well, it isn’t fair. You tell me how it’s fair.

You will also blame Netflix. “That’s not a movie, a TV show,” someone said to me recently at a screening. Dee Rees is now being made to carry the burden of the battle between some in the film community and Netflix — a battle, by the way, that inflexible critics are destined to lose. Somehow they think punishing Rees’s film will prove their point (even though Netflix was the only distributor with the guts and good taste to buy Mudbound after its exhilarating premiere at Sundance). This fearful and reactionary stance will not age well. Stiff-necked traditionalists will continue to punish Netflix until, well, someone like Martin Scorsese validates the brand and then they wouldn’t dare say it was a “TV show.” By then it won’t matter, and the holdouts will look all the more ridiculous with their debunked sticks stuck in the mud.

Mudbound is pure poetry. The writing, the acting, the directing makes it a standout this year and the kind of achievement film awards are made for. Lady Bird is a film for a generation, one that will define many young women and women both in how they view their past and where they take their lives from here. We celebrate them, along with all of the women who put out such great and successful work this year.