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  • Apr 26, 2021

Director Chloé Zhao Makes History With Oscar Wins


Chloé Zhao upended 93 years of Oscar history on April 25 when she became the first woman of color and the second woman ever to receive the best director award for her feature Nomadland (2020). The drama film, based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book about the transient lifestyles of older Americans searching for work during the Great Recession, also bagged best picture and best actress for Frances McDormand, as well as nominations for best adapted screenplay, film editing, and cinematography.

Zhao’s third feature, Nomadland opened to widespread acclaim in September 2020 at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Golden Lion. The film drew particular attention for its understated and humanizing portrayal of the marginalized transient community, some of whom appeared on-screen. In her acceptance speech Zhao remarked, “Even though sometimes it might seem like the opposite is true, I have always found goodness in the people I met, everywhere I went in the world. So this is for anyone who had the faith, and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves, and to hold on to the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult is to do that.” Zhao’s Oscar wins wrap up a historic awards season, with Nomadland sweeping best director accolades at the Golden Globes, the British Academy Film Awards, Directors Guild of America Awards, and Critics Choice Awards earlier this year.

The director’s success was not without controversy, however. Days after the Oscar nominations were released, the Chinese government advised mainland state media not to broadcast the awards ceremony—a move followed by broadcasters in Hong Kong. The Special Administrative Region’s leading Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) told CNN that it was "purely a commercial decision" not to air the Oscars for the first time in 50 years, although widespread media speculation chalks it up to the nomination of the Anders Hammer-directed Do Not Split (2020), about the 2019 Hong Kong protests, for best documentary short. Zhao, who was born in Beijing and subsequently educated in the United Kingdom and the United States, has herself attracted public censure in China for making statements critical of her birth country, including in a 2013 interview in which she claimed she grew up surrounded by “lies.” Some Chinese netizens congratulated Zhao on her Oscar wins on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo, but such posts were swiftly censored, with related hashtag searches resulting in the error message “according to relevant laws and regulations and policies, the page is not found.”

Chloe Morrissey is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

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