Wednesday, June 8, 2016

When Will There Be More Female Best Director Oscar Nominees?

Kathryn Bigelow
It is likely by now that everyone in America has heard the news. After months of contention and voting, Hillary Clinton has become the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party. This is pretty big news, especially considering that she will be the first woman to do so, and whose odds of winning seem increasingly likely. It's been an overwhelming moment for women nationwide, who are now believing in the "You can be anything you want to be." narrative more than ever before. However, there's another field that seems to have not embraced female contribution: The Academy Awards. No, this isn't about the Best Actress categories, but more in the Best Director and even Best Picture category. While there have been a few bright spots, the average year sees some absence of a certain gender in these fields. The question isn't when there will be a female directed Best Picture winner. That already happened. What's the bigger question is when will this become the normative. 

In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow received acclaim for The Hurt Locker - a film that inevitably earned her Best Director and Best Picture. The bigger honor came in the former category, which had had female nominees before (Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion, and Lina Wurtmuller), but they were also few and far between. When presenter Barbara Streisand took the stage that evening, she made a note that this could be a historic moment. When she announced the winner, she started with "The time has come," a line that was meant to emphasize the achievement. After all, The Academy had been handing out awards since the late 20's, so the almost 75 year gap of a female Best Director winner inevitably seemed like an oversight. Considering the later backlash surrounding the lack of racial diversity, it's a wonder that nobody has really noted that this was six years ago and that, yes, there are some great female directed movies that have been released since, regardless of the disparaging ratio of male-to-female directors in the industry. Even Bigelow had another Oscar-worthy movie in this time with Zero Dark Thirty, which became part of a conspiracy that she was snubbed.

There is an interesting parallel that can be found between 2008 and now with Barrack Obama being elected president. While not immediate, the perception of black culture has inevitably changed in cinema with many films tackling the black identity throughout history. Films like The Help and Selma were created to show the struggle in new and invigorating ways. While there hasn't necessarily been one that hasn't in some way been tied to struggle (12 Years a Slave remains the only film to win Best Picture directed by a black man), the narrative has evolved to explore how they fit into society. With that said, there's also been a decent amount of Oscar winners in the black community in this time as well as an Asian Best Director winner (Ang Lee) and back-to-back-to-back Mexican Best Director nominees (Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu twice). There's plenty of evidence that diversity in film is a good thing, though one can only hope that things get a little feminine very soon here.

Jennifer Lee
In fairness, cinema has tried to give women more interesting roles. Paul Feig has reinvented his career by making female-centric comedies. Actresses like Meryl Streep are opening exclusive companies that only work with women. While there's very little necessarily evident as to a shifting tide, the representation is at least getting a workout that will hopefully see more good than bad. Of course, there's still a ways to go as Feig's Ghostbusters has come under fire with sexist remarks solely because the cast is female. Even then, films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens has a female central protagonist, which is major for a film that pretty much smashed the box office records one by one. One can imagine that a world with Clinton as potential president inspired this change. If nothing else, Clinton's latest feat will help to make the arts seem far more impressive and hopefully allow gender diversity to start happening on an implicit level - even if it's still taboo to try and open a female directed movie internationally (though Frozen's Jennifer Lee doesn't seem to care. Her film made a billion dollars.). 

So the question is when will this start reflecting in the Oscars? I know that the general trend right now is to give minorities better representation. That is a smart move, and one that has warranted conversation for the past two years. However, in order to achieve diversity, one must also do it with women getting the chance to make films on par with Inarritu, Cuaron, or Lee. Not only that, but that their work is given a platform to at least reach a market outside of the small independent system. True, critical acclaim has helped some filmmakers work transcend the market, but there's still room to grow if the only reputable Best Director nominee from the past few years in this category is Selma's Ava Duvernay. I don't even think she's the only one worthy of discussion, but her lingering status as the biggest snub of the past few years definitely has given her a platform to be more vocal on the varying problems facing the industry. There are many, and it will hopefully begin to be resolved.

As with Obama and the black cinema movement, I do imagine that there will be some time before the hypothetical Clinton administration and the female cinema movement reach the same significance. Thankfully, it's already been brought into conversation and there's talk of change, but there has to be some time before the change can be seen. While it first comes with being able to open a reputable movie to an audience, the inevitable sign of success beyond marketability is whether or not women can legitimately compete in the Best Director field alongside their male counterparts. The fact that Bigelow's win didn't spark a gradual shift towards a more progressive mixture is itself problematic - regardless of how strong the five nominees of those given years are. There will always be someone left out, but it's a little jarring that women of any race seem to get it the most. 

As in keeping with my opinion that there should be better representation of LGBT films at the Oscars, so should there be with women. It isn't just enough to nominate talented actresses. There are many fine talents behind the scenes worthy of an award. I can only hope that Clinton's recent motif of "You can be anything you want." can come to include Oscar-nominated for a job well done. I don't expect women to win the next few years, but I want to believe that their nominations aren't a sighting rarer than a blue moon. If nothing else, I hope that supporters take her advice and support women in any field. Since this is a cinema-centric blog, I'd encourage you to watch female directed or written movies. Tell your friends. Try and recognize the work. Hopefully The Academy will not be too far behind.

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