In Oscar directing category, a numbers boost for women and African Americans


Kathryn Bigelow sounds a wee bit tired of questions about being a “female director,” but given that on Tuesday she became only the fourth woman to be nominated for best director by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, she knows it comes with the territory.

“I long personally for the day when the modifier is a moot point,” said a very happy Bigelow, whose film nabbed nine nominations, including one for best picture. “I anticipate that day will come, but if ‘The Hurt Locker’ can make the impossible seem possible to somebody, it’s pretty overwhelming and gratifying. At least we’re heading in the right direction.”

“The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow’s stunningly visceral examination of life in a bomb-disposal squad in Iraq, is the culmination of more than 25 years in the business and an aesthetic that defies conventional notions of gender (which often relegate women directors to romantic comedies). Her films include the vampire flick “Near Dark” and the surf thriller “Point Break,” as well as the romantic historical mystery “The Weight of Water” and the 2002 nuclear sub thriller “K-19: The Widowmaker.” After “K-19,” which cost $100 million, grossed only $66 million worldwide, Bigelow, a maestro at creating cinematic tension, did not release another film for seven years. Five of those years were spent developing and shooting “The Hurt Locker,” which was financed entirely by selling foreign distribution rights. As the film has no stars, the big selling point was Bigelow.

“Her movies have done very well overseas, and they’re loved,” says “The Hurt Locker” producer Greg Shapiro. “When you would meet foreign buyers, you could see a deeper appreciation for her work, more so maybe than in the U.S. Her films have a very unique voice.”

Bigelow is not the only groundbreaker in the director’s category. “Precious” director Lee Daniels is only the second African American (after John Singleton) to be nominated, and as he said Tuesday morning from his bed (where he’d cried, and TiVoed the announcement), “I am the first African American to be nominated for a movie that was produced by an African American.” (Daniels was referring to himself in both capacities, as “Precious’ ” other producers are its financiers, Gary Magness and Sarah Siegel-Magness.)

“I think it’s a great thing for my kids to see and for other filmmakers, not just black filmmakers. What it does say is your dreams can come true,” he added.

Like Bigelow, Daniels prefers not to focus on race or gender. “I don’t look at it like a color thing,” he says about his march into history books. “It’s a universal thing. When God wants it to happen, it happens. . . . It took someone crazy like me to make a movie about a 400-pound black girl.”

Bigelow has swept a raft of critics awards and over the weekend became the first woman to win the Directors Guild of America’s top award, making her the leading contender for the Oscar. Her main competition appears to be her ex-husband, James Cameron, who helmed “Avatar,” another wartime film, although with a decidedly different bent. (The two action-film auteurs were married from 1989 to 1991 and remain friends.)

Still, Bigelow’s breakthrough does not reflect a growing trend. In terms of both box office and public awareness, 2009 might seem a particularly fruitful year for women directors, who were behind the camera for such box office hits as “The Proposal,” “Julie & Julia” and “It’s Complicated,” as well as another best picture nominee, “An Education.”

Yet according to Martha Lauzen, executive director for the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television at San Diego State University, who annually compiles statistics on the top 250 movies, the percentage of women directors has been virtually unchanged since 1987, at 7% to 9%. “That would mean we’re running in place,” she said. “It would be tragic if people looked at [Bigelow’s nomination] and think that everything must be OK for women. I do hope, however, that it brings more attention to women’s underemployment and makes people realize that women can direct films about any topics, including war and male-bonding stories.”

For African Americans, the percentage is even smaller, about 4%, according to the DGA, and that includes directors of television and commercials as well as feature films. Moreover, although there are a number of successful black directors working in Hollywood, including F. Gary Gray, the Hughes brothers, Antoine Fuqua and Spike Lee, there is only one who can get his films greenlighted on his name alone: Tyler Perry.