At a time when Hollywood is engaged in an ongoing dialogue about women directors, there turns out to be an abundance of women behind the camera this year. At least six prominent female directors have films that are in the Oscar conversation. Two of them have already been nominated for Best Director: Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, who remains the only female who has ever won the DGA as well as the Oscar for Best Director (and Best Picture along with it). So you read that right, only one woman in 89 years of Oscar history has won Best Director. Only once did a film directed by a woman win Best Picture.
The Beguiled and Detroit are two brilliantly-directed films, but both found themselves embroiled in discussions about race — specifically, whether a white person should be the one telling stories that involve race. Coppola was hit for removing the one black character, a former slave, in The Beguiled. She said that the reason was because she didn’t feel that she was the right person to tell that story. But she was hit anyway, and dragged through the mud a bit even for her past films like Lost in Translation. Conversely, Kathryn Bigelow, who (along with Mark Boal) desperately wanted to bring the story of the Algiers Motel to light, made Detroit, which unflinchingly illustrated such extreme police brutality that some film critics asserted that it wasn’t her story to tell, being a white filmmaker. The reaction put both directors in a strange position: if they want to make movies at all, they have to stick to only telling stories about white characters.
Detroit earned an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes and has a high user rating, indicating that audiences responded to it well. Without the controversy that hit it online, it probably would have been one of the strongest entries in the Oscar race. Surely many would have preferred Detroit had been made by black filmmakers, but no one ever stepped up to tell the story. As it stands, Detroit is still one of only two films with an almost-entirely black cast to be anywhere near the Oscar race this year.
Still, that leaves Dee Rees as a woman of color who did make a film about the issue of race in America — Mudbound, which was seen and reviewed in Sundance. If Rees is nominated for either a DGA or an Oscar for Best Director, she will be the first woman of color to do so in their entire history. Those are some big stakes. Mudbound, which features both black and white actors, has a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it already one of the best-reviewed films of the year. Rees also gave this once in a lifetime speech after winning the Sundance prize. The fate of Mudbound is still unknown, but it’s a mark of progress that it’s gotten this far.
Greta Gerwig took the awards race by storm with Lady Bird, which was the hit of Telluride. Gerwig has made a personal film that is half coming-of-age and half mother-daughter relationship story. Gerwig’s directorial debut is impressive and launches her directorial career by proving she will be a force to be reckoned with. Lady Bird so far is enjoying a stellar 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating it is a critics’ darling in the making. I suspect if it doesn’t hit big with the Oscar crowd, it is destined to do well at the Gothams and the Spirits.
Angelina Jolie is the one I think might have the best chance to crack the DGA or the Academy’s director list, simply because, of all of these films, First They Killed My Father has to be the most ambitious (I have not yet seen Mudbound so I can’t include that in this assessment). Jolie’s film is an epic that tells the story of what happened to the Cambodian people after the war in Vietnam. Given her previous efforts, this is a major step forward for Jolie as a filmmaker and storyteller, and is certainly her most personal film. Will the directors take her seriously enough to warrant a nomination? We’ll know in 3 months.
Finally, Valerie Faris co-directs Battle of the Sexes with Jonathan Dayton. They were skipped over for a directing nod from the Academy with Little Miss Sunshine, but did receive a DGA nod. The verdict is out on this film at the moment, however. It doesn’t seem to have captured the “cool” crowd, that’s for sure, but it is a crowdpleaser, as a rousing celebration of Billie Jean King. Battle of the Sexes is that rare biopic of a gay woman — especially rare for Best Picture consideration.
The Academy’s directing branch is a notorious boys club. They almost never let women in. It’s just a fact. For all of the times the Academy has nominated films directed by women for Best Picture, the directors have declined except for four times: Lina Wertmuller in 1976, Jane Campion in 1993, Sofia Coppola in 2002, and Kathryn Bigelow in 2009. That’s it. But if none of these women are nominated (and at the moment, it’s hard to make the case that any will), it’s still worth nothing that they’re here and they’re making their mark on film nonetheless.
No woman has been nominated for Best Director since 2009, eight years ago.