By Zoe Rose Bryant
At the 94th Academy Awards, “The Power of the Dog’s” Jane Campion made history in two significant ways. Not only was she the first woman nominated twice for Best Director (despite Kathryn Bigelow and Greta Gerwig coming close in 2012 and 2019 with “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Little Women” respectively), but her eventual win represented the first time that women had won Best Director back-to-back, following Chloé Zhao, who won for “Nomadland.” Now, many Oscar pundits are asking the same question: might we be headed towards a third female Best Director winner in three years? At the time of this writing, the field is currently filling up with several acclaimed male auteurs (Steven Spielberg for “The Fabelmans,” Martin Scorsese for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Damien Chazelle for “Babylon,” and James Cameron for “Avatar 2”). Still, the ladies are putting up quite a fight as well. Below, in alphabetical order, we outline ten female filmmakers we believe could follow in Jane Campion’s footsteps this awards season to earn a Best Director nomination (and maybe even secure that statue).
Chinonye Chukwu – “Till”
Nigerian-American film director Chinonye Chukwu stunned many when her death-row drama “Clemency” premiered at Sundance in January 2019, where she went on to ultimately win the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize; making her the first Black woman to receive the award. Could she go on to be the first Black woman nominated for Best Director at the Oscars as well? Perhaps. From the goodwill from “Clemency” – which earned nominations for Best Feature, Best Female Lead (Alfre Woodard), and Best Screenplay at the 35th Independent Spirit Awards as well as a Best Actress nomination at the 74th British Academy Film Awards – paired with the powerful premise of her sophomore feature, “Till” might just do the trick.
The film follows Mamie Till-Mobley’s pursuit of justice following the 1955 lynching of her 14-year-old son Emmett Till. The famous story is referenced constantly in American culture, especially amidst today’s cries for racial justice. But, it has yet to be thoroughly told in cinema – and it’s currently set to debut this October, which is right in the heart of awards season. The film will be distributed by United Artists Releasing (who are no strangers to this game, having just campaigned “Licorice Pizza” to a Best Picture nomination last year). Chukwu’s courageous commitment to emotional authenticity with a sure-to-be phenomenal performance from “The Harder They Fall” breakout Danielle Deadwyler as Till-Mobley makes this film one to watch out for.
Nikyatu Jusu – “Nanny”
It is fitting that Nikyatu Jusu follows Chinonye Chukwu on this list, given that Jusu also followed in Chukwu’s footsteps at Sundance this year, becoming the second Black woman to win the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize for her film, “Nanny.” Led by a daring Anna Diop, “Nanny” follows immigrant nanny Aisha, who is in the midst of piecing together a new life for herself in New York City while simultaneously caring for the child of an Upper East Side family. Soon, she is forced to confront a concealed (and maybe supernatural) truth relating to both her culture and the world she finds herself in that threatens to shatter her ‘American Dream.’
Jusu’s valiant directorial vision – along with her brilliant blend of modern and mystical frights – earned her profuse praise throughout this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Following her Grand Jury Prize win, a bidding war for the distribution rights to her film began between Amazon Studios/Blumhouse Productions, Sony Pictures Classics, and Neon, where Amazon/Blumhouse prevailed. While a specific release hasn’t been set yet, the studios have stated that they plan to release the film both theatrically and on Prime Video. In the meantime, the industry is catching up with Jusu’s work, as it was recently announced that her next project was acquired by Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions and Universal.
Kasi Lemmons – “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”
Following memorable supporting roles in “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Candyman,” actress Kasi Lemmons made her directorial debut in 1997 with “Eve’s Bayou,” and though she hasn’t quite been able to recapture the magic of her first film in the years since, she has remained an impressive actor’s director. Cynthia Erivo earned a Best Actress nomination for her 2019 film “Harriet,” and Octavia Spencer received an Emmy nomination for Lead Actress in a Limited Series for her 2020 miniseries “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” – which bodes very well for Naomi Ackie, the star of this year’s Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” But what of Lemmons?
Many may point to her own “Harriet” or even last year’s “Respect” and say that just because a lead performance is lauded doesn’t mean the film itself will be. But, there is reason to be hopeful that “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” might be better than your average biopic. For starters, Sony Pictures has set it for a Christmas release, indicating great confidence in its appeal. Plus, it has a commendable cast (“Moonlight’s” Ashton Sanders, “The Devil Wears Prada’s” Stanley Tucci, and “Da 5 Bloods‘” Clarke Peters, to name a few) and crew (“The Theory of Everything,” “Darkest Hour,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “The Two Popes” screenwriter Anthony McCarten). While we have yet to see Lemmons’ direction for ourselves, it is clear that the project is shaping up to be something special, and if it breaks big, she could certainly be swept along with the love.
Eva Longoria – “Flamin’ Hot”
Eva Longoria’s feature film directorial debut “Flamin’ Hot” came into controversy last spring when it was revealed that the subject of the film, Richard Montañez, a Mexican American Frito Lay janitor who is said to have invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, may not have been the inventor of the product. But Longoria pushed through with production and channeled all of her passion into what is still believed to be a celebration of Mexican American culture and one man’s possible contributions to this global pop culture phenomenon.
“Flamin’ Hot,” which will be distributed by Searchlight Pictures, has yet to find a release date. But given that production wrapped last August, it seems likely that it will open in the fall or winter, and knowing Searchlight’s success with awards contenders, it shouldn’t be counted out as a potential player this season. Many are eagerly anticipating what style Longoria brings to this story after delivering strong work on TV shows like “Jane the Virgin” and “Black-ish,” and should she ultimately receive an Oscar nomination, she’d be the first Latina to earn such a distinction.
Olivia Newman – “Where The Crawdads Sing”
Delia Owens’ novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” was the literary sensation of summer 2018. Later, it was selected for Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club and ultimately adapted into a film by her production company, Hello Sunshine. The film, which Sony Pictures will distribute, is currently slated for a July release, positioning it as a potential summer sleeper hit amidst all the blockbusters and family fare. This strategy has worked out in the past for late-summer book adaptations with strong female fanbases (“Julia & Julia,” “The Help,” “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” etc.), and “Where the Crawdads Sing” comes with quite a buzzy cast (with Daisy Edgar Jones, hot off of “Normal People” and “Fresh,” while “The King’s Man’s” Harris Dickinson and “Nomadland’s” David Strathairn co-star). Plus, it has a thrilling concept that could be appealing to broader audiences.
While the film is not seen as a top-tier Oscar contender at the moment, there is always a chance that “Where the Crawdads Sing” connects with older crowds as counterprogramming to the summer’s superhero spectacle. Should it further flourish awards-wise, one could see director Olivia Newman be brought along for the ride, lauded for bringing the story’s morally murky marsh setting to life and preserving the novel’s taut sense of tension. Though she has primarily done TV in recent years, her debut film “First Match,” which centers around a teenage girl joining the boys wrestling team, was critically acclaimed and received the Audience Award at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. So, if “Where the Crawdads Sing” isn’t her breakout, it is clear that it is coming soon.
Sarah Polley – “Women Talking”
Most award pundits have pegged Sarah Polley as this year’s most likely female Best Director nominee, and for good reason. To begin with, the actress turned writer/director is already an Oscar nominee, and though her sophomore feature “Take This Waltz” (starring Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen, who funnily enough may be showing up this awards season as well in Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans”) didn’t make quite as much of a splash, her 2012 documentary based on her own lineage, “Stories We Tell,” was a smashing success with both crowds and critics. It left audiences itching for more Sarah Polley content ever since.
Flash forward to a decade later, and Polley is finally returning to film with “Women Talking.” The film, based on the 2018 novel of the same name, centers around a group of women in an isolated Mennonite religious colony in Bolivia (Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, and Frances McDormand) who struggle to reconcile their faith after a string of sexual assaults are committed by the colony’s men. On its own, the story sounds emotionally wrenching, and that is without taking into consideration today’s social context in the post-#MeToo world. This concept makes it likely that many will understandably rally around its urgent message this awards season. Additionally, a Best Director nomination for Polley could be seen as a ‘welcome back’ gesture that finally brings her into ‘the club,’ so if “Women Talking” really resonates this fall, watch out.
Gina Prince-Blythewood – “The Woman King”
Two decades after the charming romance/sports drama “Love & Basketball” put her on the map, Gina Prince-Blythewood is helming her biggest film to date with “The Woman King.” A historical odyssey following Nanisca (Viola Davis), the general of the Dahomey Amazons, and Nawi (“The Underground Railroad’s” Thuso Mbedu), an ambitious recruit in the Kingdom of Dahomey. According to Deadline, “The Woman King” is set to showcase how this daring duo “fought enemies who violated their honor, enslaved their people, and threatened to destroy everything they have lived for.”
With an ensemble cast that also includes “No Time to Die’s” Lashana Lynch, “Star Wars’” John Boyega, and “The Batman’s” Jayme Lawson,” Sony Pictures is certainly pulling out all the stops with this one. However, the early September 16th release does make us pause ever-so-slightly – at least until we see if it is playing at fall festivals and get a better grip on how the film is positioned as an awards player narratively. But, Oscar voters love an epic (“Braveheart” and “Gladiator“), and primarily centering this specific story around Black women will most definitely allow it to stand apart from the pack. So if it delivers dramatically, “The Woman King” could, for sure, make a splash this awards season, and in that case, it would be hard not to see Prince-Blythewood honored as well for helming the grandiose epic and pulling it all together.
Kelly Reichardt – “Showing Up”
With every film Kelly Reichardt makes, cinephiles keep trying to guess if this will be the one that will finally be her Oscar breakthrough. For a while, it looked like “First Cow” could have pulled it off. It won Best Film from the New York Film Critics Circle and was even nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography at the Critics Choice Awards. Still, in the end, it wound up with zero Oscar nominations. However, many have high hopes for this year’s “Showing Up,” set to be distributed by A24 and compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
The film – which marks Reichardt’s fourth collaboration with actress Michelle Williams – follows a sculptor preparing to open a new show who must balance her creative life with the daily dramas of her family and friends in a “vibrant and captivatingly funny portrait of art and craft,” according to IMDb. That synopsis alone leads one to believe that this is one of Reichardt’s more mainstream movies to date, and the ensemble is also promising, featuring “Downsizing’s” Hong Chau, “Ordinary People’s” Judd Hirsch, “First Cow’s” John Magaro, and even Andre 3000. We won’t have to wait long to see how “Showing Up” plays, given that it’ll premiere in just a little over a month, and since A24 has some time before it has to lock in its 2022 awards plans, this one could leave a lasting impression on voters if they play their cards right.
Maria Schrader – “She Said”
Suppose you saw “Unorthodox,” the 2020 Netflix miniseries sensation about a Jewish woman escaping her ultra-Orthodox community and navigating a secular life. In that case, you’re well aware of the talents of director Maria Schrader – and she’s got an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series to vouch for her. This year, the German actress-writer-director tackles her biggest film to date with Universal’s “She Said,” an adaptation of the book of the same name. The story chronicles New York Times investigative reporters Jodi Kantor (played by Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (played by Carey Mulligan) as they seek to expose Harvey Weinstein’s history of abuse and sexual misconduct against women, leading to the mainstream #MeToo movement.
Many pundits are already preparing for the film to be a force in the acting and writing categories, but we should not be sleeping on Schrader’s direction either. When journalistic dramas click with the Academy (think “All the President’s Men” or “Spotlight“), they often take their directors along with them, with proper praise given to those in charge of sustaining the suspenseful narrative and striking the perfect balance between a procedural drama and a propulsive thriller. Plus, since Schrader already has some fans in the Television Academy she amassed from “Unorthodox,” don’t be shocked if she can leverage that goodwill into a Best Director Oscar nomination.
Olivia Wilde – “Don’t Worry Darling”
After Olivia Wilde burst onto the scene as a director with style to spare and something to say with 2019’s “Booksmart” – which earned her a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature – fans have been eagerly awaiting her follow-up feature. With the psychological/social thriller “Don’t Worry Darling,” it seems as if she’s prepared to deliver in spades. Re-teaming with “Booksmart” scribe Katie Silberman, “Don’t Worry Darling” follows an unhappy housewife in the 1950s (Florence Pugh) who discovers that everything is not as it seems, as her husband (Harry Styles) is hiding a dark secret from her.
If that beguiling brief synopsis wasn’t enough to sell you on the story, its stacked cast (Chris Pine, Gemma Chan, and Kiki Layne.) certainly should. Wilde is exploring a new genre here – veering away from coming-of-age comedies and embracing eerie mysteries instead – but we are confident in her versatility as a filmmaker. If all goes well, it could follow a track similar to Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” as the ‘feminist genre film’ that breaks through (with shades of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” as well).
So, what say you? Do you agree with our picks? Are there any other female filmmakers you think might surprise this awards season? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Zoe and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @ZoeRoseBryant