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The Woman King
Photograph: eOne

How this year’s Academy Awards nominations have let female directors down

Hollywood has taken a step backwards on gender representation, says ‘Girls on Film’ podcast host Anna Smith

Written by
Anna Smith
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The Oscar nominations had a few surprises this year – I gasped out loud several times watching the nominations, cheered several more times, and booed at least once. I’ll come to that in a minute. 

Leading the nominations is Everything Everywhere All At Once, the inventive multiverse sci-fi that scored Michelle Yeoh’s first Leading Actress nomination (at the age of 60), making her the first Asian actress to figure in that category. There were also nods for all the other central cast members, namely Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis, and – less widely predicted – Stephanie Hsu, who plays Yeoh’s daughter in the film.

These are not just highly deserving nominees but injected some much-needed diversity into the actor categories. Aside from the brilliant Angela Bassett for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Black actors were conspicuously absent. And there was nothing for Viola Davis for The Woman King. The hit action epic is up for BAFTAs and is leading the nominations at the ‘Girls On Film’ Awards, but has been completely overlooked by the Academy. Nothing either for Danielle Deadwyler for Till, the heartbreaking and deeply moving story of a mother searching for justice. These are both films directed by Black women – Gina Prince-Bythewood and Chinonye Chukwu respectively – which makes their absence particularly uncomfortable.

My booing, as you may have now guessed, was reserved for the Director category. Now, I loved Triangle of Sadness and The Banshees of Inisherin, but was dismayed to see no female directors come up on screen. After the past two years of triumphs from Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) and Chloé Zhao (Nomadland), an all-male line up felt like a regressive step.

Female directors fared better in the documentary category: All The Beauty and the Bloodshed is directed by Laura Poitras, and Fire of Love by Sara Dosa. Meanwhile Mandy Walker became only the third woman to be nominated for a Cinematography Oscar, for her work on Elvis.

After Jane Campion and Chloé Zhao’s recent triumphs, an all-male line up feels like a regressive step

But that aside, only a Best Picture nomination for Sarah Polley’s Women Talking has averted some terrible optics for the Oscars. I’m still left mourning the absence of some of my favourite female-driven films, including Sally El Hosaini’s The Swimmers – a moving and inspiring film that could have been this year’s CODA. And when I first watched Maria Schrader’s She Said, it felt like a certainty – a stirring story of journalistic bravery and integrity in the (usually Oscar-friendly) vein of The Post or Spotlight. It  also tackles a very Hollywood scandal: Harvey Weinstein. Was it too close to home? Did its disappointing box office count against it? Then again, that hasn’t always been a barrier in the Oscar race.

The name could even be a clue: having voted for Women Talking, was there no more room for any more titles that reference the female gender? 

Women Talking
Foto: Universal Pictures‘Women Talking’ picked up a Best Picture nomination

A byproduct of the triumphant return of big-name male directors such as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron has been to push women out of the running. Many held their films over during the pandemic, unwittingly giving space to wonderful women making thoughtful films. It’s sad to think that their return might come at the cost of filmmakers with smaller budgets, who so often include women. 

And like most of the nominations, the Best Director category is voted for by the directing chapter itself – a voting bloc still dominated by white men. They say people usually vote for those who look like them, so despite the Academy’s efforts to diversity, the Oscars may still have a long way to go.

There’s clearly a need to address the unconscious bias of both voters and of the industry as a whole – and starting next year, there are new rules in place with this in mind. Here’s hoping we see some rapid results.

Anna Smith is a film critic and host of the Girls On Film podcast. The second annual Girls On Film Awards, supported by Time Out, take place on Feb 23 at The Garden Cinema. Listen and subscribe to the podcast here.

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