In the middle of her nearly two-decade career behind the camera, cinematographer Rachel Morrison recently found herself thrust into the spotlight with an Academy Award nomination for her work in the World War II-era drama Mudbound. While an Oscar nod is always cause for celebration and inquiry into an artist’s body of work, Morrison's recognition also made history and headlines on two fronts.
Not only is she the first woman to be nominated in that category in the 90-year history of the Academy, but Morrison, married to a woman, also became the first out woman to be nominated, breaking down two doors at once. A consummate artist with a long list of outstanding films on her résumé — including the much-anticipated Black Panther — Morrison is reluctant to call herself a political “advocate,” but her contribution to depicting important stories is arguably the work of an activist.
“I think especially with the world as messed up as it is right now, I don't really believe in entertainment for entertainment's sake,” Morrison tells The Advocate. “I think that we have a responsibility to infuse our entertainment with messaging or to challenge our viewers to think outside the box a little bit or put people in another experience for a moment.”
And certainly, Morrison’s IMDB page is loaded with culturally relevant cinema, especially within the past decade. Her eye for picking projects with sociological heft kicked in with her work on 2013’s Fruitvale Station (from Black Panther director Ryan Coogler), which tells the true story Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man shot and killed by a police officer at a train stop in the Bay Area.
“[Social relevance] is something I seek out,” Morrison says. “I think maybe it was subconscious at first and now it's very conscious.”
Oscar nominee Mary J. Blige in Mudbound
Following Fruitvale Station, Morrison turned to Daniel Barnz’s 2014 film Cake, in which Jennifer Aniston plays a recalcitrant woman suffering from chronic pain — a subject that often gets short shrift and/or fails to be taken seriously. Her next project was Dope from Rick Famuyiwa, a satirical investigation of the intersections of racial identity and personal expression.
Considering Morrison’s body of work, it’s not surprising that she signed on to the prescient Mudbound, a searing examination of racial tension among black and white farmers in 1940s Mississippi from Pariah and Bessie director Dee Rees. But beyond the film’s cultural relevance, it was the era in which Mudbound takes place that appealed to Morrison.
A student of still photography as well as of cinematography at New York University before studying at the American Film Institute Conservatory, Morrison, who always had a camera in her hand for as long as she can remember, cites Depression-era photojournalists including Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans as some of her inspirations.
Beyond the gritty realist images those photographers captured, Morrison says she was also inspired by the “movement” of documenting those ravaged by the Depression. “The idea that you could show emotion through a still image and move a country to make real changes,” appealed to Morrison, she says.
Morrison’s Oscar nomination in a category that was previously 100 percent dominated by men comes at a watershed moment for women in the aftermath of the 2016 election that shined a floodlight on gender disparity and inequality across industries. At a time when strides for women that include everything from running for elected office to Wonder Woman’s box office domination are being taken more seriously, media outlets and women ecstatic to see another barrier busted down clamored to share the news of Morrison’s achievement. Although she’s much more at home behind a camera than she is in front of it, she’s easing into her newfound fame, in part because she knows how important it is.
“That's really the thing that's kept me going with all this [attention],” Morrison says. “It's so not natural for me to be front and center, but I recognize my responsibility even as a role model.”
In her field dominated by men, Morrison says she was always aware of the work of other “trailblazing” women in her industry, in part because there were and still are so few. One way Morrison seeks to break down stereotypes about women in the role is to operate the camera herself.
“I think it's important to see women front and center holding the camera and directing the film and all these things,” Morrison says. “I think, really, that's how other people get inspired to follow these career paths.”
Despite gains in diversity in Hollywood reflected in this year’s Oscar nominations, including Greta Gerwig landing the Academy’s fifth-ever nomination for a woman in the directing category for Lady Bird and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, an incisive look at race, landing several nominations including best picture, Morrison hopes to see even more moving forward. Mudbound scored four nominations including for cinematography, for its screenplay, for Mary J. Blige’s performance, and for best song, but Morrison laments that the film was overlooked for a best picture nomination and that Rees was snubbed for directing.
“The one thing that's been bittersweet for me in this process is that I don't understand how [Rees] doesn't have the best director nomination and the film didn't get it at best picture,” Morrison says, calling Rees a “visionary.”
The Academy Awards ceremony is just about three weeks away, but even before she takes to that red carpet, Morrison's second collaboration with Coogler, Black Panther, arrives in theaters February 16, and with huge fanfare. A mega-studio film, Black Panther marks a change for Morrison who’d previously worked primarily on independent films where the shots were often called based on what could be done within the budget. While there was virtually no limit to what Morrison could do with the camera on Black Panther, its important, overdue depiction of a black superhero, which has already spurred the largest advance ticket sales in the history of Fandango, is completely in line with her commitment to tell stories that matter.
“I didn't become a political advocate. I'm not helping the environment or doing any of these, kind of, greater good things with my life,” Morrison says. “I try to infuse the cinematography that I do and the stories that I tell him with that a little bit. And I feel like we all have a responsibility try to leave the world a slightly better place than it was when we inherited it.”