In the context of #TimesUp, the story of one artisan in particular stands out as a ray of optimism: Cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who lensed Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” broke two glass ceilings with the film. She’s the first female DP to have been nominated for an Oscar as well as for a guild award from the American Society of Cinematographers.
Morrison also is the DP on Ryan Coogler’s superhero film “Black Panther,” which opened Feb. 16 to breakthrough box office. And she’d rather focus on job than gender. Since the early days of her career, she’s said that what’s been most important to her is that “people think of us as directors of photography first and foremost.” And although it’s difficult not to focus on the fact that she’s the rare female DP, her work speaks for itself.
Morphing from grittier, darker stories like “Sound of My Voice” in her early days, she showed she was at ease in humanistic portraits that feature subjective naturalism, such as “Little Accidents” and Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station.” Being recognized both by the Academy and the ASC for “Mudbound” speaks volumes about her oeuvre but also validates the hopes of women with cameras in their hands and dreams in their hearts. “This nomination is so much bigger than me or my work,” she says. “I hope it tells women all over the world that there’s nothing they can’t do, including cinematography.”
Growing up in Cambridge, Mass., Morrison was drawn to photography, snapping black-and-white photos on her mother’s Olympus camera. Discovering foreign and independent film during middle school, she realized there was an opportunity to affect people via cinema. Though she wasn’t aware yet that filmmaking could be a career, she was fascinated by the idea of creating imagery, so she plunged into the craft.
She got an undergrad degree in photography at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and a master’s in cinematography at the American Film Institute, and had hopes of jumping straight into narrative filmmaking. But she was offered a position as DP on MTV reality show “The Hills,” and realized that was the best way to pay off her student loans.
“The thing about that show,” Morrison says, “is that it taught me to light for multiple cameras at the same time. I got really familiar with every light that can be powered by house power, and it made me efficient [at using] all the tools I would later need for indie cinema.”
After two years, she decided to focus on feature films with promising scripts. She ended up with director Zal Batmanglij and co-writer and actress Brit Marling on their 2011 feature debut, “Sound of My Voice.” Ethereal and claustrophobic, the fictional-cult exposé demonstrated the beauty that Morrison could bring to the screen armed only with two Canon 7Ds and 15 days of production.
But it was 2013’s “Fruitvale Station,” with its sad and profound story — and visual aesthetic to match — that put Morrison and then-tyro writer-director Coogler on the map. Using Kodak 16mm film, Morrison felt that the tactile and organic graininess of celluloid and the integrity of its color rendition would best fit the project. It would “amplify the realism and affect the audience emotionally, even at an unconscious level,” she says. Many in the audience at the movie’s Sundance premiere wept as the credits rolled.
In 2013, Morrison mentioned her far-off fantasies of working on bigger-budget productions where “more money would equal more time and toys.” That came true with “Black Panther,” but she’s surer than ever the job has stayed fundamentally the same. “I knew Ryan wasn’t going to helm a typical superhero movie,” she says. “It would have deeper messaging woven in. As with ‘Fruitvale,’ the story came first, and we were attuned to the subjective experience of our characters.”
Morrison’s touch can be found throughout “Black Panther”; the movie still feels independent at heart, even as the Oscar nomination propelled her through the glass ceiling.