With Zhao only the second woman to win the Academy Award for best director, this year’s Oscars are shaping up as a milestone for women and people of colour.
Chinese-born filmmaker Chloe Zhao, who told the story of financially stretched van dwellers in United States’s recession-era tale Nomadland, has become the first Asian woman and only the second woman ever to win best director at the Academy Awards on Sunday.
It was the first Oscar for Zhao, 39, who featured real-life nomads alongside actress Frances McDormand to tell the tale older Americans who travel from job to job to try and scrape together a living.
Zhao was born in China and lived in Beijing until age 14, when she went to boarding school in London. She later moved to Los Angeles where she finished high school and then attended film school in New York.
Despite early excitement in China over Zhao’s nomination, a backlash began after internet users dredged up some old social media posts in which they claimed the film director slighted her homeland. The ceremony is not being broadcast in China this year, nor in Hong Kong – a short documentary on the territory’s 2019 protests is also in the running for an award.
This year’s ceremony, which is taking place at Union Station in Los Angeles, mark a return to glamour and in-person celebrations after a year of virtual ceremonies. They are also shaping up as milestone not only for women, but also people of colour.
“There’s a good deal of gender diversity in some of the important awards that have been handed out so far; diversity in gender and in race,” said Al Jazeera’s Rob Reynolds who is at the venue.
British actor Daniel Kaluuya, who first came to international attention in the 2017 black comedy horror Get Out, won best supporting actor for his role as the late Black Panther activist Fred Hampton in the drama, Judas and the Black Messiah.
Kaluuya, 32, emerged as frontrunner for the Academy Award after also winning at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and British BAFTA ceremonies.
Black revolutionary leader Hampton, was shot dead by Chicago police in 1969 at the age of 21.
Kaluuya, who was born in London to Ugandan parents, paid tribute to him as he held his Oscar on stage.
“What a man,” Kaluuya said. “How blessed we are that we lived in a lifetime that he existed. Thank you for your life.”
Meanwhile, Youn Yuh-jung was named best supporting actress Oscar for her role as a cantankerous grandmother in immigrant tale Minari.
Youn, 73, was the first South Korean actor or actress to win an Oscar. Last year, director Bong Joon Ho won best director as well as best film award for his black comedy thriller Parasite.
“Me being here, I cannot believe it,” Youn said, revealing that she was a huge fan of Brad Pitt, the film’s Executive Producer.
Just two women have won best director in the Academy Awards 93-year history. Kathryn Bigelow took the prize in 2010 for war thriller The Hurt Locker.
This year marked the first time two women were nominated in the category at the same time with Zhao competing against Emerald Fennell, the British director of Promising Young Woman. Zhao went into the ceremony as the favourite after picking up trophies from the Directors Guild of America, the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and multiple film critics groups.
Although she lost out to Zhao in the directing category, Fennell took home the Oscar for best original screenplay.