December was a good month for 2017 — at least for film. Not just because it signaled that the horrifying year was finally coming to an end, but also because of Vanity Fair’s “Awards Extra!” special issue. I heaved myself out of bed early on the morning of Dec. 1 and did the first thing any student who is refusing to accept the beginning of finals week would usually do: I began scrolling through my Instagram feed.
Right at the top was a stunning picture of arguably two of the most important members of the film industry in 2017 — Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele, standing only a few feet from one another. They were both holding loudspeakers in hands that appeared from perfectly cuffed shirts and were impeccably dressed. Gerwig was facing Peele, her mouth slightly open as though talking into her loudspeaker, while Peele was staring ahead, listening. I was looking at two of my favorite directors of the year in the same frame, and for a good three minutes, I forgot about finals and Trump and remembered just how much “Get Out” and “Lady Bird” blew me away.
The recent Golden Globes saw Natalie Portman subtly, beautifully point out the Globes’ trend of nominating all male directors, and it’s no secret that Hollywood is predominantly white. This year, however, the Academy decided to nominate a woman and a Black man for Best Director — only the fifth time it has done so for each demographic. Further, Gerwig’s nomination marked a break of the Academy’s eight-year run of nominating only men for this category. After an eight-year-long refusal to recognize brilliant female directors, it is nothing short of impressive and inspiring to see directors such as Gerwig still strive to tell their stories, regardless of who might try to shut them down.
The nominations for the 90th Academy Awards — particularly in the Best Director category — are historical in more ways than one. What makes them especially significant is the content of the films in question that earned their directors these nominations.
“Get Out” portrays the unavoidable, uncomfortable racism not-so-hidden in the depths of a society that favors whiteness above all else, and is simultaneously humorous and terrifying. Peele wasn’t trying to be soft about the powerful point about racism he aimed to illustrate, making the viewers shift in their seats as they watched themselves being villainized. Some members of the audience want to refuse the role they have played in society as portrayed in the film, but Peele forces them to listen and to accept — something most directors are afraid to do. For the Academy to have nominated Peele for this film is, indeed, remarkable, and hopefully marks a shift in the way stories of race and identity are to be told.
More importantly, this nomination is one of four nominations received by “Get Out” this year, a feat for a horror movie to achieve at the Oscars, let alone in four major categories — Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture and Best Actor. The Academy isn’t used to nominating films of this genre, let alone a horror film that makes a strong cultural statement, and Peele has successfully overturned such a convention.
With Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” garnering eight nominations and three wins last year, including the award for Best Picture, the Academy is slowly responding to the #OscarsSoWhite hashtags that tweeted their way onto everybody’s phone screens last year and has begun representing a slightly more diverse set of nominees. Peele has followed in the footsteps of John Singleton (“Boyz n the Hood”), Lee Daniels (“Precious”), Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) and Jenkins.
A24 / Courtesy
“Lady Bird,” too, very clearly represents a fresh voice. It follows a young girl as she rebels her way through the brutality that is senior year of high school, exploring and discovering through her complex relationship with her mother that reflects the relationship almost every girl shares with her mother. It is real and human and beautiful. It features a determined, intelligent and strong female lead, and does not for a second shift the audience’s focus away from that fact. I certainly wasn’t the only one crying in the movie theater as the credits rolled in.
With this nomination, Gerwig becomes part of a shockingly short history of only four other women who have been nominated for Best Director — Lina Wertmüller (“Seven Beauties”), Jane Campion (“The Piano”), Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”) and Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”), who won the Oscar in 2010 and has so far been the only female director to do so.
Gerwig’s and Peele’s films are, evidently, anything but the norm. They are bold and unafraid, making striking, passionate statements about race and sex, love and identity, breaking all the rules of conventional Hollywood filmmaking. Gerwig and Peele are representatives of their films and the stories they tell, and for them to have been nominated in the Best Director category of this year’s Oscars is, exceptionally, a milestone.