The important news from Tuesday's Oscar announcement was not that sentimental favourite The Shape of Water earned the most nominations. Nor that the Academy members had managed to avoid embarrassment by nominating a racially diverse group in the acting categories including Denzel Washington, Octavia Spencer, Daniel Kaluuya and Mary J. Blige. Nor that Meryl Streep just won her 21st nomination, beating a record she already held.
No, the important news was that, for the first time ever, a woman has been nominated as best cinematographer: Rachel Morrison was recognized for her work on Mudbound, the Netflix drama that the streaming service also dropped into L.A. cinemas long enough to qualify for the Academy Awards. You could hear the glass ceiling … well, perhaps shattering is an overstatement, but at least cracking sharply.
Morrison's nomination is a big deal not only because it symbolically opens up her male-dominated profession, reminding people that, yes, there is actually such a thing as a cameraperson. Previously, when critics complained about the complete lack of women in many of the technical categories at the Oscars, the Academy could reply, with some justification, that there simply were no women in these roles to nominate.
But it's also a big deal because cinematography is a traditional stepping stone to the largest artistic role on a movie set, that of the director, another job category where the film industry has not welcomed women. There are lots of famous examples of directors who began as cinematographers, from Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld to the Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) – but, tellingly, when Indiewire compiled a list of 15 of them in 2014, there wasn't one woman on it.
The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University reports that, in 2017, only 4 per cent of the top 250 grossing U.S. movies could credit a female cinematographer, while only 11 per cent were directed by a woman. Screenwriting, another route to the director's chair, was also only 11-per-cent female. This year's nominations for best director were unusual in including a woman – Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird, only the fifth woman ever nominated in the category. Mudbound director Dee Rees would have been the first-ever black female director to get a nomination, except that she didn't. Only one woman has ever won an Oscar for direction, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010.
Yes, the direction category has what is known as a pipeline problem: There aren't enough women lower down the ladder that leads there. But also, as the #MeToo scandals have so painfully demonstrated, the movie industry suffers from rampant sexism. It is not merely that women might not choose to become cinematographers and therefore aren't in the right place at the right time, but also that the ladder has been specifically constructed to exclude women.
For evidence of that, look not to the earnest Oscar-worthy dramas but to the movies that make Hollywood money: Reviewing big-budget action movies, I am often surprised at how few credentials a rising male director needs to be put in charge of millions. Just last week, for example, the Danish photojournalist Nicolai Fuglsig made his commercial feature-film debut with the Chris Hemsworth Afghanistan war movie 12 Strong, while Wes Ball continued to prove himself a strong action director with Maze Runner: The Death Cure. He was a graphic and special-effects artist who was handed the Maze Runner franchise with no previous directing credits in 2014.
The point is not that these men don't deserve a chance; the point is that producers took risks on them, identifying them as potential directors worth promoting. Yes, there are a few female examples of the same phenomenon, most notably Patty Jenkins who was assigned Wonder Woman with only a short list of TV directing gigs and a single feature film on her resumé, but they are much rarer. Female directors routinely complain that the bigger the budget, the less likely they are to get the job, and the numbers back that up: In 2017, the percentage of female directors falls from 11 per cent to 8 per cent if you move from the top 250 films to the top 100.
This is not merely a problem in Hollywood; when Telefilm Canada told its clients to get with the program in 2016 because the agency wanted gender parity in its portfolio, the industry almost instantly complied and, little more than a year later, Telefilm could boast 44-per-cent female directors – on projects where it was contributing less than $2.5-million. Over $2.5-million, where the number had been languishing at 4 per cent, well, that's a work in progress.
These issues matter not simply as a question of job equity in a well-paid and glamorous industry. They matter because they decide who gets to tell stories from the biggest platforms to the largest global audiences – and that will decide what stories we get to hear. Mudbound is a drama about racism in rural Mississippi after the Second World War. It would not have reached the screen without director Rees, who also co-wrote the script (based on the novel by Hillary Jordan) with Virgil Williams. Nor without the ceiling-busting Morrison.