As Hollywood events go, there are few more congratulatory than film festival awards ceremonies, where everyone wants to cheer for the Next Big Thing before they get huge. Yet, at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the biggest applause at the awards show wasn’t for a director or actor—it was for Rachel Morrison, a director of photography on the festival jury. “Earlier this week,” host Jason Mantzoukas said while announcing her name, “she became the first woman ever to be nominated for the Academy Award for cinematography. Her historic nod is for last year’s Sundance hit Mudbound." Out in the audience, Morrison smiled sheepishly; at her side, fellow jurors Jada Pinkett Smith and Octavia Spencer whooped up a storm. The audience stood to clap.
To Morrison, the entire scene was surreal. "That was the the first time it settled in," she says a few weeks after Sundance, talking about the film community's response to her groundbreaking nom. "The fact that everybody is cheering me on is moving."
Right now, to use Hollywood parlance, Rachel Morrison is having a moment. Not only is she currently the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar for cinematography, she’s also got another monumental movie coming out this weekend: Marvel's Black Panther, which might end up being one of the biggest comic book flicks yet. (That’s not hyperbole: It currently has a 97 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes and is looking at a $170 million debut that could break the President’s Day weekend record previously set by Deadpool.)
It’s been a long time coming. While the lack of gender parity amongst movie directors is known, the dearth of female cinematographers doesn’t get nearly as much attention—despite the statistics being even more striking. Only 4 percent of of the cinematographers working on the 250 top-grossing domestic releases of 2017 were women, a figure that was the same two decades ago, according to a study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. (By comparison, 11 percent of the directors for those 2017 movies were women.)
Historically speaking, of all the roles women can fill behind-the-scenes in filmmaking—writer, producer, director, editor, etc.—the numbers are lowest for cinematographers. So while there have been enough women hired as directors to get a scant few nominated for Oscars—Kathryn Bigelow is the only one to win, for The Hurt Locker—no female cinematographer has ever gotten a nod from the Academy.
"To see Rachel nominated in a technical category and to realize that in 2018 this is the first time any woman has ever been nominated in that category, is staggering," says Noah Harlan, a former film producer who worked with Morrison when she was a camera operator on the MTV reality series Room Raiders. "So when I think about my own daughters, the fact that I can say ‘Hey, that woman is an amazingly talented person, she did this gorgeous film in Mudbound and she did this amazing action film with Black Panther,’ it’s a really great thing. There’s not enough of those type of role models for young women."
What has caused this disparity beyond just sexism is hard to parse, but American Society of Cinematographers president Kees van Oostrum thinks it might finally be changing, albeit slowly. “The cultural thing is much harder to change and often not noticed by the person propagating it,” van Oostrum says. “In that light, [Morrison’s] Academy Award nomination is wonderful, because it breaks the culture more than anything.”
“Your movie becomes much more narrow-minded when you have like-minded department heads. Whereas if you can surround yourself with people who have been a mother before, been a grandmother before, you get a much broader and wide-reaching swath of human emotions.”
And breaking the culture is necessary. Cinematography, as much as direction, translates the emotions and intensity of a moment onto film. Having people with different life experiences—women, people of color, LGBTQ people, etc.—involved in a film means their eyes will see things someone else’s might not, and help those things make it into the frame. “Your movie becomes much more narrow-minded when you have like-minded department heads,” Morrison says. “Whereas if you can surround yourself with people who have been a mother before, been a grandmother before, you get a much broader and wide-reaching swath of human emotions.”
For years cinematographers came up through the ranks as third assistant directors who eventually got trained to shoot. Directors tended to be men, and often hired their (male) friends. And “there was this idea of ‘Oh, we can’t hire women because it’s a real physical job,’” van Oostrum says. All the reasons for not hiring women into the profession, he adds, are “easily refutable” but the issue persisted until film school enrollment exploded in the second half of the 20th century, offering opportunities for more people to get trained. Progress is still slow, but van Oostrum points out that female membership in ASC is on the rise—currently 16 of the ASC’s 383 members are women, up from eight in 2005—and film schools are educating female DPs in droves.
Morrison is testament to that, though she says she tries not to get bogged down thinking about the statistics or the fact that she’s an anomaly. “I’ve always tried to think of it as an advantage,” she says. “I get to stand out in the room.” Morrison got her degree in cinematography from the American Film Institute in 2006 and in the intervening years directed more than a dozen features, 10 of them in six years. She worked on the time-travel cult thriller Sound of My Voice and Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. Then, a few years later, she experienced “director-DP love at first sight.” Ryan Coogler was looking for a cinematographer for his first feature Fruitvale Station, about the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant by a transit officer in Oakland; Ilyse McKimmie, who runs the Sundance Institute’s filmmaker lab, suggested he connect with Morrison. “We just hit it off,” Morrison says. “The Skype interview went on for two and a half hours, and we laughed and cried. He felt like the brother that I’d always wanted and never had.”
Fruitvale Station went on to win the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance in 2013, and Morrison went on to work on more indie hits: Dope; What Happened, Miss Simone?; and eventually Dee Rees’ Mudbound, the wrenching film about post-World War II Mississippi that snagged her that aforementioned Oscar nomination.
Now, with Black Panther, Morrison is bringing her keen eye to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first female cinematographer to do so. The blockbuster scale, thankfully, didn't translate into studio interference. “They give you a very big sandbox to play in,” she says, “and you can do whatever you want within that sandbox. I didn’t feel Marvel was helicopter-parenting us at all.” What Morrison is still adjusting to, though, is the level of hype her latest film is getting. Fans had waited a long time for a black superhero to carry an MCU film; the near universal praise for Black Panther indicates she and Coogler made something that will make them happy. “I was at the premiere,” she says, “and the energy was palpable through the entire movie. I was really proud at the end of it.”
And next month, she might be an Oscar winner. It’s an honor anyone in her profession would like to have, and if Morrison wins, she gets to make history. But being the first female cinematographer to be nominated for an Oscar wasn’t the goal. In some ways, it shouldn’t have been a milestone left uncrossed before her.
“There are a ton of women who have been doing amazing work for a long time; it’s unfortunate it’s taken this long [for a woman to be nominated],” she says. “For me, it’s always been about the work—it wasn’t about ‘Let’s go break some ceilings.’ I just wanted to tell an important story and do the best work I can. Everything else is secondary.”