Academy Firsts in the Year 2018

Last Tuesday, I spent my morning commute eagerly refreshing my iPhone web browser. There I was, sandwiched between what I estimated to be about a million other passengers, gripping the pole with one hand while thumbing my phone with the other. Each time our clown-car packed 4 Train arrived in a cell signal zone, I would look down at my phone with great anticipation, awaiting the big announcement.

Before I continue, I’d really like to get something off my chest: the Oscars are my Super Bowl. I watch every conceivable awards contender before Oscar season kicks off, and then I make my best predictions for which films will rise to the top of the pack and garner nominations for an eventual Academy Award. When it comes to the Oscars, I root for movies the way New Yorkers root for the Giants. That is to say, I go for the underdogs. And I always make the mistake of becoming personally invested in the accoladed future of my favorite films. So when the day finally came for nomination announcements, I’ll admit, I was all in.

Scrolling through the nominations, I was feeling good. My indie favorites Get Out, Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name all got nods for Best Picture. Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele were both nominated for Best Director. All seemed right. Until I found Rachel Morrison’s name amongst the Best Cinematography nominees. Selected for her superb camera work in Mudbound, Rachel Morrison is the first woman ever to be nominated in the category of cinematography.

By some inconceivable reality spanning 90 years of Oscar ceremonies, not a single woman has ever been considered for the award. It dawned on me then that the imbalances of the world of cinema were not phenomena of the past. They are absurdities of our present and future. Sure, the 2018 Academy Awards will signal a step forward for female filmmakers, forging a Rachel Morrison sized hole in the glass ceiling of cinematography.

But, the fact remains. It is the year 2018, and we are still having firsts.

Americans today exist within a society that aims for representation in all fields, from science and technology to politics and business. Yet, these core sectors of our nation have yet to achieve parity in either gender or race inclusion. The film industry, despite (or because of) the national ideals it projects on screen, has been as inaccessible to women and people of color as Fortune 500 boardrooms or the Presidential Office.

Within the U.S. film industry, practices of historic exclusion, along with longstanding barriers to access and opportunity, no doubt shape the current faces of filmmaking. In the early years of American cinema, women were either actresses or script girls. They were never camera operators. The role of the cinematographer (also known as Director of Photography, or DP) was designated as a craft for men, and men alone. Aptly called “the cameraman,” cinematographers acted as a director’s right hand. Their work was complex, requiring technical mastery of the camera, physical ability to maneuver through shoots with heavy equipment, and imaginative photographic aptitudes. Ultimately, it was up to the cameraman to capture the creative vision of the film.

The industry has made it clear that this is no task for a woman. It wasn’t until 1980 that the American Society of Cinematographers (the leading industry group for DPs in the U.S. film industry) opened its membership to women. Today, only 4% of working cinematographers in Hollywood are women, a statistic that proves we have a long way to go.

The inclusion of a female camera operator in this year’s Oscar consideration offers the promise of progress. Yet, detriment comes from defining the achievement as remarkable.

Make no mistake, Rachel Morrison is a masterful DP. Before Mudbound, she beautifully shot Fruitvale Station, Dope, and Cake. She was also the cinematographer behind the best superhero film to beam down from the Marvel Universe this century, better known as Black Panther. Nevertheless, as long as we consider it special to find a woman with the talents and merit to operate a camera, we are part of the problem.

Rachel Morrison is merely one cinematographer amongst a large and growing family of female camerapersons. Women like Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Maryse Alberti (Creed), Amy Vincent (Hustle and Flow, Footloose) and Mandy Walker (Hidden Figures) have already risen through the ranks to become feature film cinematographers. And their work has ushered in a new wave of female DPs. I personally have my eye on the ascent of cinematographers Nadia Hallgren, Nausheen Dadabhoy, and my very own right hand DP Nadja Thomas. Their artistry is leading our first generation of women of color in the field of cinematography, a vital next barrier to addressing the race gap in filmmaking.

2018 made Oscars history, simply for its inclusion of a singular woman in a category that has been dominated by men since its inception. Should we reflect on this moment as a praise-worthy industry achievement or as a belated correction of legacy biases? I’d say the latter, save for recognition of the artists themselves. It is The Academy’s responsibility to identify and rectify the prejudices of their institution, but it is up to us all to hold them accountable. April Reign has already set the stage for civilian callouts with #OscarsSoWhite. But the work is not done, there are still more firsts to be had. No Latinx woman has ever won Best Actress, nor has an Asian woman. A black woman has never been nominated for Best Director, and only one woman in Academy history has ever won the award.

In 2028, the Oscars will enter its centennial year. Let’s hope that after a century of doling out golden statues, the Academy will have figured out its inclusion problem.

I long for the day when it isn't special that a talented filmmaker is non-white or non-male. I pine for the work of women and people of color in all areas of cinema, where their presence is no longer spectacular simply because it is so abundant.  An era when the conversation can instead surround the merits of the art at hand and the cultural discourse its renderings put forth in our society. 

Between now and then, Hollywood has a lot of work to do. If inclusion and representation are to become more than buzzwords, the expansion of training programs, technical workshops and mentorship need to be instituted as industry requirements. The task of creating  a more inclusive cinema landscape does not end here. Access is useless without opportunity. 

Instead of sticking to the prejudiced practices of nepotistic hiring, studios  should become brazen about bringing on women and people of color. Film financiers have to put their money behind independent filmmakers from every race and gender, artists who may not resemble Scorsese or Spielberg, but have new stories that are just as compelling as Taxi Driver and E.T.  Only then can multi-colored and multi-gendered filmmakers fairly compete alongside each other for industry accolades. Ultimately, the Academy Awards are not just about the glitz and glamour. Taking home an Oscar means a filmmaker can book more projects, land bigger budget films, and even command higher pay. Perhaps enough to sustain themselves from their art. 

For now, though, we live in 2018 - the year in which it's still remarkable that a woman can operate a camera.