The Incredible Journey of Chloé Zhao and Other Reasons to Celebrate Diversity at the Oscars

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Forest Whitaker Chloe Zhao at Wrap Sundance dinner, 2015

The Incredible Journey of Chloé Zhao and Other Reasons to Celebrate Diversity at the Oscars

WAXWORD

I remember the first time I met Chloé Zhao. She was this tiny thing who showed up to a private Wrap dinner for directors and writers at the Sundance Film Festival on Main Street in 2015, tucked under the protective arm of Forest Whitaker. 

She was in competition at the festival with her first feature, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” which Whitaker produced. I remember her and the film especially because it was an unusual combination. Zhao, a Chinese-born filmmaker, telling the story of a Native American family on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, a place I had happened to visit as a reporter and knew to be one of the poorest places on Earth. 

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Of all places, she chose this one to set her story. And of all stories, she chose to focus on Johnny and his sister Jashuan, young Native Americans struggling in a family fractured by a tragic legacy of the Lakota nation.

I thought that this writer-director must be a person of uncommon empathy. 

The film wound up grossing $147,000 worldwide.

So it is quite a wonder to consider Zhao’s journey from then until now, nominated for a stunning four Academy Awards and poised to become the first Asian woman in history to win Best Director on Sunday night for her film “Nomadland.” 

She is also nominated for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Editing. It almost takes your breath away. 

But if that trajectory makes your pulse race (as it does mine), consider the other firsts that are happening at this year’s Academy Awards: 

• The first time two women are nominated for Best Director, Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell. 

• The first time an Asian woman is nominated for Best Director.  

• The first time any woman of color is nominated for Best Director. 

• The first time a British woman is nominated by Best Director. (Fennell is also nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.) 

* The first time an all-Black team of producers is nominated for Best Picture (“Judas and the Black Messiah”). 

* The most Black nominees for a single film in Oscar history (10 for “Judas and the Black Messiah”). 

And with the votes in and expectations already set, most people anticipate another first on Sunday night: that three nonwhite actors may take the top acting prizes, namely, Yuh-Jung Youn for Best Supporting Actress (“Minari”), Chadwick Boseman for Best Actor (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) and Daniel Kaluuya for Best Supporting Actor (“Judas and the Black Messiah”). 

That list could expand if Viola Davis, beloved but in a tough competition, manages to snag Best Actress for playing “Ma Rainey.” 

In a world where diversity has sometimes become a slogan rather than a meaningful goal, it is worth taking a moment to appreciate where we are here in Hollywood, on the cusp of setting new standards and embracing change that we hope may become a new normal. 

Many may look at the Oscar race this year and see a glass half-empty. Some important projects about and by filmmakers of color, did not make Best Picture — namely, Spike Lee’s “Da Five Bloods,” and notably the missing nomination for Delroy Lindo’s masterful lead performance. 

As an observer of this process for more than two decades, I choose to see this moment as a glass that is steadily filling up. 

The process of choosing to make diversity a goal of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences membership has played a role. And public pressure about the lack of inclusion in our industry, the lack of gender equity and the need to finally open the gates wider has forced more diverse projects to be given a chance. 

That said, Zhao’s journey is even more remarkable than most. 

She was born and raised in Beijing, China. Her stepmother was an actress, Song DaDan, but otherwise she had no entry into entertainment. As an adolescent, she reportedly was rebellious and drawn to Western cultural influences. Zhao went to boarding school in London, but finished high school in Los Angeles. She studied political science at Mount Holyoke College, and later went on to study film production at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She made a bunch of shorts before directing her first feature in 2015, and the rest is history. 

And her next movie will be “The Eternals,” a megabudget Marvel tentpole with Anglelina Jolie that’s due out this November.

I have not once had the pleasure of talking to her during this extra-long awards season, which I regret. But I have watched her gather accolades and statues with wonder.  And I’m going to stick with this feeling of hope that I get from the nominees at this year’s Academy Awards.

Sharon Waxman