Women Directors Dominated in 2019: Where’s Their Recognition?


Photo courtesy of Wilson Webb.

Director Greta Gerwig behind the scenes on the set of her film, Little Women.

Foster Cowan, Editor

On January 13, when the Oscar nominations for best director were announced, the list was, as has become the standard, entirely comprised of men. In the 92 year history of the Academy Awards, only five women have ever been nominated for best director, a mere 1% nomination rate, and of those five only one has actually won it, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2009.

While these dismal statistics show the long-standing tradition of film direction in Hollywood as a boys-only club, you’d think that in 2020 we’d be moving forward and ushering in an era of inclusivity and equality. And yet it seems like the industry is staying rooted in its bias; at every major awards show this year, from the Golden Globes to the BAFTAs to the Directors Guild of America and now even the Oscars, the director line up has been all male. Naturally, this has caused an outcry of anger from filmmakers and fans alike, but it has also raised an interesting discussion on the Internet. Under basically every article, tweet, or post I see about this issue, the comments are filled with people saying “Maybe these five men are simply the best.” And in another year, maybe they would be right. I would have no issue if five men truly had exhibited the best direction of the year, and yet the widespread frustration we’ve seen is definitive proof that the tired argument of “Maybe they were just the best” simply does not apply this year.

Of course, awards shows are subjective and opinion-based. Naturally, you will get some voting bodies who truly believe that five men are the most deserving directors to recognize. And yet, you would think that in the entire 100+ year history of film, more than five women have directed movies worthy of an Oscar nomination. And especially in 2019, when a study from the Annenberg Foundation showed that more than 10% of movies were directed by women (sad that that’s a record-breaking statistic), still not a single woman was recognized across every single major awards body. Even in a world of such varying opinions and subjectivity, you would think that a female director would be considered worthy of a nomination by at least a few awards shows in a year where dozens of women produced critically-acclaimed, nuanced, and exciting films.

Still not convinced? I watched 45 movies that came out in 2019, and of these, 13 were directed or co-directed by women (29%), which to me shows that the industry is at least moving in the right direction by removing some barriers to getting women in the director’s chair. Although all 13 of these directors displayed immense talent, I have chosen three to highlight who I feel showed exemplary, Oscar-worthy work, and certainly prove the above counterarguments wrong.  

I’ll start with the woman who got the most press following Oscar nominations, as she was seen by many as a frontrunner for the award: Greta Gerwig for Little Women. Gerwig is one of only five women to have an Oscar nomination for directing, for her 2017 directorial debut Lady Bird, and with Little Women, she proved that she is one of the best up-and-coming directors right now. As could be expected, the story follows the March sisters, four young girls in post-Civil War Massachusetts struggling with dreams, passions, relationships, and growing up. It can be hard to make a story as classic as Little Women feel fresh; after all, this is the fourth major film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, so to put such a new spin on it is a huge accomplishment. How did she do it? As the screenwriter for the film as well as the director, Gerwig took Little Women’s linear timeline and made it jump back and forth between multiple different timelines. In the wrong hands, this could have made the movie feel confusing and disjointed, but with Gerwig in the director’s chair, the time hops served to emphasize some of the most emotional moments in the film and reinforce the themes of nostalgia and the passage of time. Besides executing such a difficult screenplay, the way Gerwig employed light and color into the story is truly astonishing. During scenes of the March sisters’ childhood, everything is washed in a golden hue, making it feel carefree and joyous. With the non-linear timeline, however, these colorful, bright scenes are cut by quick transitions to the present, and the stark contrast between the happiness of the past and the bleak, blue-grey scenes of the present gives the viewer a sense of longing for what once was and makes the emotional moments even more poignant. Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is one of the biggest directorial achievements of the year, a refreshing take on an American classic with such perfectly crafted visuals and transitions, it’s amazing that she didn’t receive more awards recognition.

My second director to highlight is Lulu Wang, director of The Farewell, a movie that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last January to rave reviews. The Farewell, which is based on Wang’s actual life, tells the story of Billi (Awkwafina), a struggling writer in New York City who finds out that her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) has terminal cancer. The family stages a last-minute wedding to get the whole family back to China to see her before she dies, but the catch is that no one is allowed to tell her she is sick, as is the custom in many Chinese families, so that she can live out her final months peacefully, without the nagging fear of death always on your mind. The Farewell would not have packed nearly the emotional punch that it did without Wang’s direction and the dismal, sorrowful tone she set. The way every actor has been directed to constantly have an air of sadness and secrecy is wonderfully executed, and the grey, monotone shots of a bleak Chinese cityscape really accentuate the tone Wang creates. The way she was able to put a bilingual script together on screen is a real feat; she took a story set almost entirely set in China and told it through the lens of an American, which for me really emphasized Billi’s lack of understanding of why her family refuses to tell the grandmother about her illness. Through the contrast Wang draws between this character and the culture surrounding her, you can fully understand the complex issues of loss, family, and culture that Wang herself had to deal with, and because these struggles are universal, The Farewell is a film that can strike a chord within anyone.

My final director to highlight is actress turned director Olivia Wilde for Booksmart. A true comedy film is so incredibly hard to nail; the timing, pacing, and tone have to be meticulously crafted, and even then it can so easily go awry. Booksmart, however, did not fall victim to the recent trend of mediocre comedy, and we have Wilde’s direction to thank for that. The storyline follows two high school seniors, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), who have been at the top of their class for four years, devoting themselves only to academics. The night before graduation, however, they realize that the people who partied through high school are going to prestigious colleges just like them, and so they decide to spend their final night of high school making up for lost time and having fun. The plot my sound susceptible to cliche and tediousness, but that’s where Wilde’s direction shows. She took a relatively basic plotline and put a fresh twist on it, combining a witty script with bright cinematography and masterclass acting, which left Booksmart feeling like a personal, down to earth, relatable film with just a tasteful touch of indie movie tropes. Wilde directed the best comedy movie of 2019 with Booksmart (her first feature film too!), and what could’ve so easily been a run of the mill high school comedy became equal parts hysterical and poignant, so much so that watching it for the first time, it instantly felt like a cult classic. 

These are only three among many women who directed show-stopping feature films this year, and with the work they provided, the oversight that all awards shows showed to them feels very deliberate. Directing is very clearly no longer a job for men only, and with the level of filmmaking exhibited by not just Gerwig, Wang, and Wilde but more than a dozen other women, the recognition male directors have been getting for years is something that needs to follow. In the coming decade, hopefully the Oscars will show off the diversity of cinema and highlight the work of female directors, especially women of color (although the Academy is still 84% white and 69% male, so I wouldn’t be too hopeful). If the streak of all-male directors continues despite the clear deservedness of women out there, the Oscars will simply continue down the road to obsolescence and will be seen not as a true representation of the best of cinema, but as a group of Hollywood elites who only bolster a specific type of person in a changing and diverse world of film.