Nomadland director breaks new ground for women of color at the Academy Awards.

By Joey Nolfi
April 25, 2021 at 09:11 PM EDT
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Nomadland helmer Chloé Zhao blazed a trail for women at the Oscars, becoming the first woman of color — and only the second woman overall — to win the Academy Award for Best Director at Sunday night's ceremony.

Accepting the award after an introduction from last year's trailblazing winner, Bong Joon-Ho (Parasite), Zhao credited her father's tradition of teaching her Chinese poetry as the guiding inspirational force in her life.

"There's one that I remember so dearly, it's called The Three Character Classics. The first phrase goes: 'People at birth are inherently good,' and those six letters had such a great impact on me when I was a kid. I still truly believe them today," she said. "Even though sometimes it might seem like the opposite is true, I have always found goodness in the people I meet everywhere in the world. So, this is for anyone who has the faith and courage to hold onto the goodness in themselves, and hold onto the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult it is to do that."

93rd Annual Academy Awards
Chloe Zhao wins Best Director at the 2021 Oscars.
| Credit: ABC

The Beijing-born filmmaker won the award after steamrolling the precursor circuit, where she previously broke records and shattered tradition with similar victories at the DGA Awards, BAFTAs, and the Critics Choice Awards before claiming the Oscar.

In the Oscars press room, Zhao spoke on representation at the Academy Awards and beyond.

"I think for all filmmakers, we have to stay true to who we are, and we have to tell the stories that we feel connected to. We shouldn't feel like there's only a certain type of story that we have to tell," she said, going on to reference Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award winner Tyler Perry's speech about anti-hate. "It's a way for us to connect with other people. That's why I love filmmaking. Hopefully one of the stories we saw tonight... like Tyler Perry said, that was a beautiful speech about, let's get together and let's stop hate."

Zhao — who's next set to release Marvel's Angelina Jolie-starring blockbuster Eternals later this year — won Best Director over nominees David Fincher (Mank), Lee Isaac Chung (Minari), Thomas Vinterberg (Another Round), and Promising Young Woman's Emerald Fennell, with whom Zhao made history in March when the pair became the first two women nominated in the category in the same year.

Before the 93rd Oscars telecast, the Academy's directing branch had nominated just five women in its competitive bracket since 1976, when Seven Beauties helmer Lina Wermüller blazed a trail as the category's first woman to be nominated. In 1994, Jane Campion became the second for directing 1993's The PianoSofia Coppola followed in 2004 (Lost in Translation), as did Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 (The Hurt Locker) and Greta Gerwig in 2018 (Lady Bird). Prior to Zhao, Bigelow remained the only woman to have won the Best Director Oscar.

After her victory, Zhao explained that, while she hasn't spoken to Bigelow recently, the two have past experience together.

"I'm extremely fortunate to be able to do what I love for a living. If this win helps more people like me get to live their dreams, I'm so grateful for this. I have had a group dinner with Kathryn once, and I definitely thanked her big time," she remembered. "I would love to talk to her if you have her email!"

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