Chloé Zhao, director of the critically acclaimed drama Nomadland, just made history: She is the second woman, and the first woman of color, to win best director at the Oscars. Nomadland, which stars Frances McDormand as a restless itinerant worker who lives out of her van, is also up for four other awards tonight. Zhao is the first woman of color ever to be nominated in the category.
Accepting the award from Boon Jong Ho, the director of last year’s Parasite, Zhao thanked her fellow nominees and the company of Nomadland. She spoke with quiet passion about the game she used to play with her father, growing up in China, in which they would memorize classic poems and quote them to each other, trying to finish each other’s sentences. One of her favorites, she said, is from a work called “Three Character Classic.”
The first phrase goes, “People at birth are inherently good.” She continued, “And those six letters had such a great impact on me when I was a kid, and I still truly believe them today. Even though sometimes it might seem like the opposite is true, I have always found goodness in the people I met everywhere in the world. So this is for anyone who has 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 it is for you to do that.”
The history of women directors and the Academy Awards is startlingly brief. Fewer than 10 women have ever been nominated for best director. Before Sunday night, the only woman winner was Kathryn Bigelow, who won for The Hurt Locker in 2008. Fennell’s and Zhao’s concurrent nominations marked the first time in Oscar history that two women were up for best director in the same year.
Nomadland, based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century, is Zhao’s third feature film. It was heavily favored to win—throughout the 2021 awards season, Zhao has been celebrated, winning best film and best director at the BAFTAs, and best drama and best director at the Golden Globes. Nomadland, which stars real-life people who live as nomads alongside actors, is available to stream on Hulu.
Zhao is likely only at the beginning of a decorated directorial career. Her next project is The Eternals, a glossy, mega-budget Marvel movie that will feature the first confirmed gay superhero and the first deaf superhero in the Marvel universe.
In an interview played just before Zhao accepted her history-making award, she described directing as “shedding the skin of who we think we are and walking in another’s shoes.”
Congratulations, Chloé Zhao! She’s the first, but she won’t be the last.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.