With her Best Director win at the 93rd Academy Awards, Zhao became the first woman of color to win in the category. She’s also only the second woman to ever win the award, with Kathryn Bigelow having become the first—and prior to Sunday, the only—woman to have ever won Best Director. Bigelow won for her 2009 war drama The Hurt Locker, starring Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie.
“This is for anyone who had the faith and the courage to hold onto the goodness in themselves, and to hold on to the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult it is to do that. And this is for you,” Zhao said during her acceptance speech. “You inspire me to keep going.”
With the 2021 Oscars nominations, nods for Zhao and Promising Young Woman’s Emerald Fennell marked the first time in the history of the Academy Awards that more than one woman was simultaneously up for Best Director. Previously, Zhao became the first Asian woman to win similar honors at the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild of America Awards, and the British Academy Film Awards.
Nomadland, the script for which was penned by Zhao, stars Frances McDormand as a woman named Fern who leaves her hometown behind following the death of her husband and the loss of her job. Fern embarks on a revelatory cross-country journey, selling the majority of her possessions to reside in a van while she continues to look for work and make new connections along the way.
The film, loosely based on a 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, struck a particular nerve in 2020 thanks in part to the financial hardships that complicated or outright halted many lives amid the pandemic.
Nomadland, also starring David Strathairn and Bob Wells, is currently available to stream on Hulu.