If you’re flipping through Rachel Morrison’s family albums looking for an early glimpse of the groundbreaking director of photography — whose one-two punch of Mudbound in 2017 and Black Panther in 2018 made her the first woman to score an Oscar nomination for cinematography and shoot a superhero film — look for the photos young Rachel isn’t in. The four-year-old was holding the camera.
Her mother, a photography buff, was diagnosed with cancer around that time. Morrison picked up her mom’s old Olympus and dedicated herself to living behind the lens. In high school, she learned her passion had a name: cinematography. She marveled that “you could take 24 still photographs per second and be part of telling an emotional, complete story.”
From the start, she aimed high. “I set out specifically to do big, dramatic, important films,” says Morrison. She wanted to create images that made people think and feel, like the photojournalists who captured the Great Depression and World War II. But after graduating with her masters degree from art school, she spent two years shooting the glossy adventures of Lauren Conrad on MTV’s The Hills. “It was the opposite of the content that I wanted to be putting out into the world,” she says.
What would a heroine do? Fight for a better tomorrow. So Morrison quit her stable job and spent a year turning down lucrative reality-TV gigs and nervously tracking her student debt. Finally, she was offered her first feature, the Sundance thriller Sound of My Voice. After winning kudos for deglamorizing Jennifer Aniston in Cake, she became the go-to director of photography for festival favorites like Dope and Fruitvale Station, where she met debut director Ryan Coogler. Yet when Coogler offered Morrison her first big-budget job on Creed, she was forced to say no. She was pregnant with her first child, a son with wife Rachel Garza, and the baby was due smack during the middle of production. “It felt like a death knell on my career,” says Morrison.
Luckily, it wasn’t. Coogler hired her again for Black Panther, where the creative duo gawked at a budget that could have made 300 Fruitvales. “There was not a day that we didn’t look at each other and go, ‘Holy shit, where are the grown ups?!'” Morrison says, laughing.
Black Panther broke box office records. Two weeks later, Morrison’s Mudbound nomination made Academy Award history, and proved her range as a cinematographer who mind-melds with her directors instead of distracting viewers with her style. When she walked the Oscars red carpet in a low-cut empire waist dress, she was quietly pregnant with her second child. It was, she says, “by far the most insane year of my life.”
Now her biggest challenge is how to top it — especially when superhero-obsessed Hollywood rarely green-lights the epics she’s always dreamed of filming. Morrison is grateful to Marvel, but she wants to be shooting The Shawshank Redemption. “I always thought there was this magical room with all the good scripts, all the good projects, all the good opportunities,” she says. Once she was welcomed in, she discovered the room is empty. “I feel like I arrived at the target one or two decades too late,” she says.
Maybe she’ll have to make those dramas herself and join the small clique of directors who pull double-duty as their own DP. Other filmmakers have pointed to her interest in shaping an audience’s emotions as evidence of a latent director. Morrison is intrigued but unconvinced. For now, she thinks the best evidence of her skills is when, like those childhood photos, she goes unseen. “If people walk out of a movie talking about the cinematography and not the story,” she says, “then you’ve probably failed at your job.”