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Trailblazing director Chloé Zhao is the first woman of colour to win the best director Oscar

Chloé Zhao has become the first woman of colour and second female ever to win a best director Oscar, taking out the award for her role in the acclaimed film Nomadland.

Zhao was born in Beijing before relocating to the UK and later the US, and has previously spoken candidly about feeling like an outsider in Hollywood. 

“My life has been so transient and fast-moving.. I’ve always been an outsider, I’m drawn to outsiders,” she told film-maker Alfonso Cuarón earlier this month. 

The Oscar award has consolidated Zhao’s domination of the best director category this award season, after previously being recognised by the Golden Globes and Baftas.

Nomadland is the third film she has directed and follows the success of Songs My Brother Taught Me in 2015, and The Rider in 2017.

Later this year, Zhao’s work is expected to be showcased again in the Marvel superhero film Eternals.

While receiving the award, presented to her virtually from Seoul by last year’s winner Bong Joon-ho, Zhao paid homage to her upbringing in China by acknowledging a game she played with her father which involved memorising classic poems.

She told the audience that the memory came to her when she was recently considering her career struggles and was struck by one particular phrase; “People at birth are entirely good.”

“Those six letters had such a big impact on me, and I still truly believe them even if it might seem the opposite,” she said in her acceptance speech.

Zhao’s award follows The Academy’s announcement of new rules for Best Picture nominees last year, in a shift towards promoting more diversity in Hollywood.

Under the revised Best Picture initiative, any film submitted was required to adhere to the inclusion thresholds by meeting at least two of the four new standards laid out.

The standards placed a hefty emphasis on ensuring there were more opportunities for lead actors and those in secondary and minor roles from underrepresented cultural groups, as well as those in creative leadership positions and department heads.

The new standards also advocated for increased training, apprenticeship and internship opportunities for people from ethnic minority groups, and heightened representation in storylines, marketing and publicity.

Zhao’s triumph follows a long period where the Academy had notably failed to nominate works that exhibited diversity in cast, directors, and technical craft.

The Hollywood Diversity Report, released in 2020, noted that there are still relatively few examples of women and people of colour leading big-budget films marketed to the broadest audience.

“The report finds that women directors and directors of colour have overwhelmingly diverse productions, however, these films often have smaller budgets than those helmed by male directors and white directors.

So, in a year where more diverse productions were made more accessible to larger audiences through streaming services, the contrast is stark as to what types of films have the big budgets. There is a clear underinvestment of films made by, written by, and led by women and people of colour,” said said Ana-Christina Ramon, the report’s co-author. 

Prior to this year, only 40 people from ethnically diverse backgrounds had ever won an Oscar, twenty-seven of these were black winners, 11 Latino, 10 Asian and one Hispanic American.

This year marked the first time in the Oscars’ 93-year history that two women were nominated in the best director category – with Zhao competing against Emerald Fennell, the British director of Promising Young Woman.  

It also comes after the number of people of colour nominated for an Oscar hit a three year low in 2020. 

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