Why It's a Big Deal That a Woman Will Probably Win Best Director at the Oscars

'Nomadland' director Chloé Zhao will probably take home Best Director. It'd be the second time a woman has ever won that award.

Chloé Zhao on set with Frances McDormand | Searchlight Pictures
Chloé Zhao on set with Frances McDormand | Searchlight Pictures

If all goes as expected this Sunday, a woman will win Best Director at the Academy Awards. This will only be the second time in the Academy's 93-year history that has happened. The last time was more than 10 years ago when Kathryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker. It's hard to understate how monumental this will be. Say what you want about awards shows not mattering, but there's something undeniably thrilling in this possibility. 

Right now, it seems all but certain that Chloé Zhao will take the prize for her work on Nomadland. Zhao has won every major precursor award: the Directors Guild, the Golden Globe, the BAFTA. If, for some reason, Academy members turn against Zhao, it would be a major upset. 

Until this year, only five women had ever been nominated for Best Director. Zhao is the only woman of color ever to have been recognized, and she's nominated alongside Emerald Fennell, who is up for Promising Young Woman, making 2021 the first time that two women have ever been nominated in the category at once. After years of women being overlooked even when their films were nominated for Best Picture—Ava DuVernay in 2015 for Selma; Greta Gerwig last year for Little Women—it feels like a potential breakthrough. 

To love and follow the Oscars is to acknowledge their inherent badness and backwards-ness. This is only the second year where two Black women are nominated for Best Actress at the same time, and the first time that two filmmakers of Asian descent (the other, Minari's Lee Isaac Chung) were nominated for Best Director at once. There has never been a Black winner for Best Director. Getting excited about moments like Zhao winning is to root for excruciatingly slow progress, but I fully anticipate getting teary-eyed if (and when) it happens. 

chloe zhao, nomadland
Searchlight Pictures

Zhao's win would be both historically significant and well-deserved. The Chinese-born Zhao—who made two prior dramas, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, using mostly untrained actors—crafted a stunning nouveau Western in Nomadland that translates the imagery of John Ford to tell the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow who lives out of her van. It's a restless movie that's also deeply at peace, matching exquisite vistas with deep pathos. 

Nomadland has not been immune from controversy, especially as this extremely long Oscar season comes to a close. Since its release, critics have argued over its depiction of an Amazon warehouse where Fern works and whether it glorifies the company that has been come under fire numeroustimes for labor abuses and has run multiple intrusive anti-union campaigns to prevent workers from organizing. At this point, it seems unlikely that this debate will somehow damage the film's standing among voters, but it's the one hiccup it has faced. 

It's impossible to talk about this Oscar year without bringing up the strange circumstances that led us here. Many films that might have otherwise been major awards players—In the Heights, West Side Story, Dune—moved off the calendar when it became clear that theaters across the country would not be open to full or even partial capacity before the Academy's extended eligibility cut-off date. It will be tempting for historical records to mark this year with an asterisk. Is there an alternate timeline where Spielberg dominated? Yes. Is it likely that the unusual release calendar allowed a smaller, more divisive film like Promising Young Woman to break through in a way it wouldn't have otherwise? Sure. 

Still, that doesn't diminish the importance of any of the potentially groundbreaking wins come Sunday. An achievement in a time of crisis is still an achievement, and there were plenty of worthy, high-profile contenders that didn't receive nominations in the major categories (ie. Da 5 Bloods, First CowNever Rarely Sometimes AlwaysOne Night in Miami, etc.).

No matter what happens, Sunday night will be an emotional one. Should Zhao—or, for that matter, Fennell—win, I'm not expecting any significant change in Hollywood. I'm not even expecting another woman to win in the next 10 years. I've learned to be disappointed. But that moment will be hopeful and joyous, and I'm really looking forward to that. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.