This time of year, there is so much hand wringing about diversity in Hollywood. In 2018, some of the biggest hits included “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” Each includes a large multi-ethnic cast, but they also provided critical opportunities behind the camera.
Often when a director is from a marginalized group (minorities, women, etc.), they fill their teams with people who are also from marginalized groups.
The reason this is critical is twofold. First, those decisions give people the kinds of opportunities that open the door to greater opportunities. Successful cinematographers get opportunities to direct. Successful writers get opportunities to produce. Second, being included on high profile projects is the best path to creating Oscar history. This has come to be known as “Trickle Down Diversity.”
In 2017, Rachel Morrison became the first woman nominated for Best Cinematography for her work on Netflix’s “Mudbound.” Best Cinematography was the last gender-neutral category that had not nominated a woman by 2017. Hundreds of men were nominated before one woman could break through.
It is no coincidence that that opportunity came on a film directed by a woman. When Dee Rees tapped Morrison to be her cinematographer on the film, she probably wasn’t thinking it was a radical choice. Morrison was already an accomplished cinematographer, with credits like “Dope” and “Fruitvale Station” (notably, both directed by people of color) to her name.
Morrison was almost nominated again this year for her work on Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther.” Perhaps in the future, the diversity will ‘trickle down’ from Rachel Morrison if she chooses to direct or produce.
Joi McMillon became the first Black woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Editing for her work on 2016’s “Moonlight.” Her obvious editing prowess notwithstanding, “Moonlight” was her first feature film. She and her co-editor, Nat Sanders have since gone on to edit “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which means this may be the beginning of a career that is filled with movies that show up in the Oscar conversation.
Notably, that first feature film was directed by Barry Jenkins. The two attended college together and Jenkins was undeniably a catalyst for the success she has enjoyed. That relationship now looks like the break of a lifetime as McMillon’s upcoming calendar turns to the adaptation of a viral moment on social media, “Zola.”
Bradford Young is another cinematographer who broke new ground by becoming the first Black nominee for Best Cinematography. He earned that nomination for his work on 2016’s “Arrival,” but most of his critical breaks came from directors of color. This includes the above-mentioned Dee Rees, who gave him his first cinematographer job on her film, “Pariah.” He also worked on two Ava DuVernay directed films, including the Academy Award-nominated “Selma.”
Now Young finds himself in a position to serve as cinematographer on some of Hollywood’s highest profile projects. This includes 2018’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and future big budget feature from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment called “Intelligent Life.”
In many ways, “Roma” itself is a breakthrough. Alfonso Cuarón’s autobiographical exploration features a Mexican team telling a Mexican story. With three Mexican producers, an ensemble filled with Mexican actors of all ages and Cuarón himself taking on many of the technical roles, it is the epitome of representation.
That representation is reflected both in front of and behind the camera and has lead to critical breakthroughs this year. For instance, Gabriela Rodriguez is the first Hispanic woman ever nominated for Best Picture. Though 102 women had received nominations, it took this special team to break down that barrier.
It is also the first film to produce more than one Latinx acting nominee. Often, there will be one standout performance or a representative nomination. But with Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira both making it in, it is clear that “Roma” is loved and respected on a different level.
This type of progress would not have been possible without Cuarón’s visionary leadership. And because of that leadership, those involved with the film will likely go on to achieve further successes.
This list could go on and include names like Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, Vanessa Taylor and so many more. These are just a few examples of what is possible when diverse voices are given the helm. They tend to surround themselves with other diverse voices, which leads to larger and larger platforms for those involved. It is important to recognize that source of empowerment the next time Oscar nominees don’t seem as diverse as they should be. Perhaps the answer is always that diversity begets diversity and there is no better approach than starting at the top.