The Nomadland helmer becomes only the second woman ever to win the Director's Guild of America's highest competitive category.

By Joey Nolfi
April 10, 2021 at 09:53 PM EDT
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Nomadland director Chloé Zhao just earned a landmark prize for women and people of color on the Oscars circuit.

The Beijing-born filmmaker became the first woman of color to win the Directors Guild of America's highest competitive prize on Saturday night, beating out Hollywood mainstays like David Fincher (Mank) and Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7) as well as new filmmaking forces Lee Isaac Chung (Minari) and Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman) with a key victory for Outstanding Directing — Feature Film in the run-up to the April 25 Academy Awards.

In her heartfelt acceptance speech, Zhao thanked her fellow nominees, calling Fennell "so brilliant, so daring" and "in such control of" her craft.

"Lee, your film touched me on such a personal level. You're able to show us so much beauty and love in such an honest and authentic way. I think it's incredible what you've done. Aaron, you're a poet, I can feel my heart beating with yours when I watch your films," she continued. "David, your film is a masterclass. All your films are. You are not only a master of the craft, you also have created some of the most nuanced and humanistic performances I've ever seen."

Zhao's win makes her only the second woman in history to claim a win among the 18,000-strong guild's top category, taking the honor 11 years after Kathryn Bigelow broke the Hollywood collective's glass ceiling at the top of 2010 for her work on 2009's The Hurt Locker. Zhao and Fennell broke barriers among the 2021 DGA nominees earlier this year when they became the first pair of women to be nominated by the guild in the same year.

May 2021 Oscar Cover- Chloé Zhao
Credit: Erik Carter for EW

To date, only a handful of women have been nominated for the DGA's top prize, including Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Jane Campion (The Piano), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), and the previously mentioned Bigelow (The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty).

With a high rate of crossover membership with the Academy, the DGA has remained a steadfast foreteller of Oscar tastes, especially in recent years. Across the last 20 ceremonies, only four DGA winners — Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Rob Marshall (Chicago), Ben Affleck (Argo), and last year's Sam Mendes (1917) — have failed to translate a DGA victory into a Best Director Oscar win in the same year.

Zhao seems poised to make Oscars history as well, as Nomadland — about a woman (Frances McDormand) drifting through the American West in the wake of economic strife ‚ has steamrolled the race since its debut last summer, taking both fan-voted prizes (like the Toronto International Film Festival's People's Choice Award), prestige festival honors (it won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival), and industry-adjacent accolades (Nomadland is the first drama film directed by a woman to win the Golden Globe for Best Picture) in recent months.

"This stuff is scary, looking back at it," Zhao recently told EW of examining Nomadland's themes. "You just aren't completely sure you're going to have it. And it's only after those moments, I say 'cut,' and I walk away and go, 'Oh my God, we have a movie.' That's the risk you take.... It's a road movie. You want it to [have] a sense of discovery."

Elsewhere at the DGA Awards, Sound of Metal helmer Darius Marder won in the First-Time Director category against Radha Blank (The Forty-Year-Old Version), Florian Zeller (The Father), Fernando Frías de la Parra (I'm No Longer Here), and Regina King (One Night in Miami).

Check out more from EW's The Awardist, featuring exclusive interviews, analysis, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year's best films.

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Nomadland

Nomadland (2021 movie)

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  • Chloe Zhao

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