Rachel Morrison Reacts to Oscar Nomination for Cinematography, Talks 'Black Panther' (Exclusive)

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Mudbound Rachel Morrison
Rachel Morrison/Netflix

Mudbound director of photography Rachel Morrison made history on Tuesday when she became the first woman ever to be nominated for the Best Cinematography award in the 90-year history of the Academy Awards. Her nomination also marks the last of any non-gender specific categories to recognize a woman.

Her nomination comes for her work on Mudbound, which was directed by Dee Rees, who was also nominated alongside Virgil Williams for Best Adapted Screenplay, becoming the first black woman to be recognized in that category. Mary J. Blige also picked up two nominations, for Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Song for “Mighty River,” which she co-wrote with Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson.

On her way to the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where she’s sitting on the competition jury, Morrison found out about her nomination only moments before boarding a flight from Los Angeles to Utah. Still in “complete shock,” she spoke with ET by phone as she attempts to get settled in Park City.

“It's been a dream forever for me and it's a dream come true now. I hope that it opens the door to more women seeking a path in cinematography,” Morrison said of her “groundbreaking” nomination. “It's about goddamn time,” she continued, recognizing some of the many female DPs -- Mandy Walker (Hidden Figures) and Nancy Schreiber (The Nines) -- that have come before her. “Better late than never I suppose.”

However, the excitement is “bittersweet” because she feels that Rees should have also been recognized more. “She put together this incredible team of mostly badass female department heads,” Morrison said, speaking to the fact that Rees filled a number of key roles behind the camera with women. In addition to Morrison handling cinematography, Mako Kamitsuna (Pariah) handled editing, Tamar-Kali (Bessie) composed music and Angie Wells (black-ish) led the makeup department, among others.

The recognition for Mudbound does follow a standout year for female filmmakers. Patty Jenkins broke records with Wonder Woman, while Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird became a front-runner at this year’s Oscars, earning Gerwig nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. (The film is also nominated for Best Picture.) Female storytellers dominated the 2017 Emmys, with Reed Morano and Ava DuVernay taking home directing awards. Meanwhile, Sofia Coppola became the second woman ever to win the Cannes Film Festival prize for Best Director for The Beguiled.

Despite that, Morrison feels there’s a quota on certain categories, particularly at the Academy Awards, where Gerwig was the only woman nominated in the directing category, while Rees and Jenkins were both left out.

“There gets to be one female director and one black film,” she says, referring to Get Out, which was nominated for four Oscars, “and I don't think it should be that way. We're 50 percent of the population -- it would be nice if we were 50 percent of the nominations as well, you know? I'm happy that Greta is nominated. It would certainly be a lot worse if nobody was representing, but I think Dee should be standing there alongside her.”

Morrison, who previously worked on The Hills, has since handled cinematography for Fruitvale Station, Cake, Dope and HBO’s Confirmation. She was nominated for a 2016 Primetime Emmy for What Happened, Miss Simone? But the Oscar nomination for Mudbound kicks off a high-profile year for Morrison, whose next film is Black Panther, reuniting her with director Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan.

“Ryan is the best human being to walk the Earth. I feel like the best thing about Black Panther was getting to spend six months with Ryan,” she said of the director, adding that she enjoyed getting to see Jordan “blossom” onscreen. “It’s such a different role than anything else I've seen him do before. Anytime he was on set, it felt like getting the band back together. There was this palpable energy.”

A sure-to-be blockbuster film, Morrison compared the experience to that of Mudbound, where many of the key production roles were filled by women or people of color. “I've had two films back-to-back with exceptionally diverse and gender-equal producers and department heads,” she said. “That’s a testament to Ryan and Dee.”

Still absorbing the shock of all the recognition and attention (“The irony is, as DP, I think we like to be behind the camera -- we seek out anonymity”), Morrison is looking forward to her time at Sundance and using this moment to help usher in a new era of female filmmakers.

“I have a responsibility to the young women coming up to take this moment and be in the spotlight,” Morrison said, while also looking back on her own experience at Sundance.

“I think back to my first Sundance, which was close to seven years ago now, and the terrified but excited young filmmaker -- my career has certainly changed as a result of the films here. Sound of My Voice made me a viable DP when nobody would take me seriously before that. And Fruitvale was obviously a game changer for me. So, I'm excited to discover the next wave of talent. Hopefully this festival can really open doors for the future Dee Rees, the future Ryan Cooglers and the future Greta Gerwigs.”

The 90th annual Academy Awards will be hosted by Jimmy Kimmel at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on Sunday, March 4 and will air live starting at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on ABC.

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