Rachel Morrison picked up her mom’s old Olympus camera when she was four years old and she was hooked, dedicating herself to living behind the lens. In high school, she learned about cinematography, marveling that “you could take 24 still photographs per second and be part of telling an emotional, complete story.” She became the go-to director of photography for festival favorites like Fruitvale Station, where she met debut director Ryan Coogler. Coogler offered Morrison her first big-budget job on Creed, but she was forced to say no since her first child was due in the middle of production. They paired up again on the blockbuster Black Panther and her work the next year on Mudbound earned her an Oscar nomination, making her the first woman in her field to achieve that recognition.
In our First Time series, the cinematographer explains how she has achieved so much in such a short time — “I learned no before yes, and have been standing up for myself from the beginning,” she says — and shares anecdotes from her history-making rise in film.
She was thrilled to meet her personal idol, legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler (the man who brought Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to the big screen, and was part of the duo who shot Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven), before he died. But it was working on Fruitvale Station where she recognized that her work had meaning. “I thought there would be a more visible difference and we’d see a decrease in police brutality in the years following Fruitvale Station,” Morrison says. “I hate to say that hasn’t been the case, but I do think the film had an impact around the globe.”