Donald Clarke: Digging for dirt in Nomadland’s soil

Mud-slinging at Chloé Zhao over work scenes set in Amazon warehouse unlikely to stick

Nomadland writer-director Chloé Zhao on set with actor and producer Frances McDormand: “None of my family members are billionaires.” Photograph: Joshua James Richards/Searchlight Pictures

Nomadland writer-director Chloé Zhao on set with actor and producer Frances McDormand: “None of my family members are billionaires.” Photograph: Joshua James Richards/Searchlight Pictures

 

There was, in the current endless Oscar season, always going to be much scope for the traditional backlash against the frontrunner. It happens almost every year. 
In 2019, the family of Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali in Green Book, popped up to argue that the relationship between that pianist and his driver – a gum-chewing Viggo Mortensen on screen – was nothing like so close as it was depicted. The year before that, the producers of The Shape of Water had to deal with an ultimately unsuccessful plagiarism suit. Going up for the Oscar is a little like running for president. Your people would be as well to vet you vigorously for past indiscretions.

The dirt-diggers have been going through Nomadland’s bins since Chloé Zhao’s film premiered at Venice last September. It has been decades since a movie spent so long as the presumed favourite. For a spell, they hacked away at the notion that Zhao, a Chinese-American, was the pampered daughter of a billionaire. It is far from rare for the director of a best-picture winner to emerge from a wealthy background, but I don’t remember anyone making similar attacks on Tom Hooper (alumnus of Westminster school) or Oliver Stone (Yale-educated son of a Wall Street titan). 

Maybe it’s different for girls. “It’s not true. My dad is not a billionaire, never has been,” Zhao patiently responded. “None of my family members are billionaires. I would have loved for them to pay off my student loan and my mortgage if that’s the case.” 

So what if it had been true? Anyway, the attacks didn’t register.

The truly outrageous scandal was under their noses all the time, but it took until this week to come to a messy, pimply head. Adapted from a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a sexagenarian westerner who, after losing her husband and her job, sells her belongings and takes to the nomadic life in a poky van. Nothing to alarm the burrowing ferrets here. The film meshes professional and non-professional actors with great dexterity. No ethnic groups are slurred. 

But what’s this? Early on, Fern works for a spell in an Amazon warehouse as part of that company’s CamperForce programme and . . . Well, that’s pretty much it. The film makes no effort to address the controversial employment practices of the retail giant. The protagonist and her pals toil there and move on.

Last week, an article in the LA Times – reasonable and balanced, to be fair – finally pushed the supposed scandal to the front of the conversation. The paper aired criticism that Nomadland “glosses over the harsher realities of the modern gig economy and in particular what it’s like to work in an Amazon warehouse”. In an editorial, Alec MacGillis, author of Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, appeared to be simultaneously criticising and defending the movie. “The visual power of the film and its emotional core, Fern’s grief over the loss of her husband and her former life, occupy the audience’s attention, not Amazon’s problems,” he wrote. 

Well, exactly. Zhao has chosen to deal with those things rather than to examine Amazon’s treatment of its workers. Some filmmaker should attempt such an investigation, but for the moment we’re dealing with the emotional dynamics of the modern nomad. Amazon briefly comes into the story, but it is no closer to the centre than the short-order restaurant that later employs Fern. 

“It would be very easy for me to have said Amazon’s evil,” Zhao told the Daily Telegraph. “But while going after it could make me popular on Twitter, I’d rather look deeply at the structural issues that mean people have to work there.”

The people behind Nomadland could be forgiven for viewing this week’s kerfuffle as good news. If this is the worst the mud-slingers can come up with, then you are probably on safe ground. It’s as if, in 1992, rather than discovering Gennifer Flowers, Bill Clinton’s opponents had to make the best of a few unpaid jaywalking tickets. Nobody watching Nomadland would stroll away eager to work for Amazon. It would take a hard heart to see the film as anything other than sympathetic to the folk America has left behind. “You didn’t make the movie I wanted you to make” is not a valid indictment.

Yet this is how the Oscars have always been. There are few cases where such attacks have had crippling effect. Both Green Book and The Shape of Water won the big prize in the end. The irony here is that, for anybody eager to have a crack at Amazon, more conspicuous targets are in plain view. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, One Night in Miami . . ., Sound of Metal and Time have, between them, clocked up 12 nominations at the current awards. All are distributed by a company named for the world’s second-longest river. 

Not that it will matter. 

Nomadland is available on Disney+ from April 30th

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