Two years ago, Creed’s Maryse Alberti was on the shortlist of potential nominees for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Twas not to be. The Academy went with Carol, Hateful Eight, Mad Max: Fury Road, Sicario, and (the eventual winner) The Revenant instead. Had Alberti been nominated, though, it would have been a history-making moment. No woman has ever been nominated for that award.
That might change next week.
Rachel Morrison, who, oddly enough, was originally meant to DP Creed for Ryan Coogler but had to bow out due to pregnancy, is considered a serious Oscar contender for her work on Mudbound, Dee Rees’ still overlooked Netflix movie. Remember The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler’s 1946 classic (and Best Picture winner) about the struggles of three separate U.S. serviceman to adjust to civilian life after WWII? Wait. What’s that, you say? It’s silly to ask “remember” about a movie that came out all the way back in 1946. Fair point. Either way, that’s kind of the same plot Mudbound goes with except it’s set in the South and focuses on just two returning servicemen, one white, the other black, and the desperation experienced by their respective families both during their absence and after their return.
Best Years of Our Lives was the first notable film to address what it’s like to return home from war with PTSD, a condition that was still over thirty years away from being officially named and fully understood at the time they made the movie. Mudbound takes that idea and views it through a gendered and racial lens, asking what living through WWII and its immediate aftermath would be like for people, especially Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige’s characters, stuck in a rural South still overrun by Jim Crow and the KKK. When the white, PTSD-addled soldier (Garrett Hedlund, playing Mulligan’s brother-in-law) becomes friends with the only other returning vet in town who just happens to also be black (Jason Mitchell, playing Blige’s oldest son), the American Dream sadly meets American reality.
Rees’ direction and Morrison’s camerawork hits all of the expected period piece highs but is especially notable for its persistent mud imagery. The opening scene, for example, involves the white family attempting to bury their eldest in the middle of a rainstorm which quickly turns his grave into a muddy mess threatening to engulf them all. Morrison captures all of this in exquisite detail and employs a subtle, but effective use of space and color to separate Mulligan’s family (the McAllans) from Blige’s (the Jacksons) throughout the rest of the film. As she told IndieWire:
“From a design perspective, the McAllans always had electricity. It was fritzy but they had power and they also had windows with screens that could separate them from the outside world. And the Jackson’s had neither, and there were differences in color. The Jacksons had earthy tones (they burned wood), and the McAllans had more pastels. There was color and there was almost a sense of entitlement because they were white and they owned the land and they had hope.”
Morrison’s work on the film has already made history. Last week, she became the first female nominated by the American Society of Cinematographers for their theatrical film award, which they’ve been giving out every year since 1986. Now, she’s in the running with fellow ASC nominees Roger Deakins (Blade Runner: 2049), Bruno Delbonnel (Darkest Hour), Hoyte (I swear this is his actual name) van Hoytema (Dunkirk), and Dan Laustsen (Shape of Water) for a shot at Oscar gold. It’s not a guarantee Morrison will make the cut. The Academy doesn’t always vote lock-step with the ASC, but she at least now has a real chance.
Definitely, something to watch when the nominations come out next Tuesday. As of two years ago, there were only 14 women among ASC’s active members, just 4% of the group’s 360-person membership total. For whatever reason, cinematography is one of the most male-dominated fields in the industry. But good work is good work, and Morrison’s capable helming of Mudbound is being justly recognized.
Of course, if Morrison is snubbed by the Academy, she’s at least already made history with the ASC. Plus, she’s now the first woman to DP a Marvel Studios movie thanks to Coogler recruiting her to join him on Black Panther.