top of page

"Nomadland (2020)"'s Chloe Zhao: An Asian Director with a Voice for an Underrepresented Community

Meghan Dhawan

"Nomadland (2020)"'s Chloe Zhao: An Asian Director with a Voice for an Underrepresented Community

TW // Racism, Death

Dear Asian Youth,

Over the past year and a half, the world has reawakened and ushered in a new light of hope and perseverance for equality. As a society, we have witnessed growth, appreciation, and most of all, justice. This has been most evident in racial groups, particularly with increased advocacy for Black and Asian lives across the globe. With the usage of widespread education, recognized power in individual voices, and the intolerance for injustice, numerous people have begun to understand why their racist actions will no longer be tolerated or accepted by those around them.

We have had countless celebrities, influencers, authors, major companies, and other people with powerful positions explain why it is so crucial to care for everyone, especially Black and Asian people. It is also so refreshing to see many individuals who are not people of color come together and educate their target audience to not spread hate and violence to these racial groups and other people of color. Not only are they influencing how to combat hate, but also what to do and say in retaliation to those who continue to racially target people of color. The Instagram account @Soyouwanttotalkabout, one that was created in February 2020, with posts ranging in content to inform the general public of important issues going on in the world. The account gained much traction, shares, and likes in June 2020, during the uprising of retaliation against the police regarding the death of George Floyd. This account has brought much attention to racially-driven hate crimes, issues regarding race, and the trauma people of color face. More accounts have trailed in the footsteps of @Soyouwanttotalkabout, incorporating the same messages and lessons into their feeds as well, spreading the information further.

Whether or not their original intention was to talk about race as a primary point of information, many powerful people in the media are coming together to spread awareness and acceptance of Asians and other people of color, and hold those who continue to spread hate crimes accountable.

While the hate for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has surfaced more recently than that of the hate for Black lives, every group is being represented more and more every day. The world acknowledging their-our existence is vital. Our voices need to be heard, and it is a victory that many people of older generations are so happy to hear that we are doing. This is especially important since AAPI hate has been going on for decades, but it has not always been as obvious as the blatant racism that Black people have faced for centuries. Although we still have a long, long way to go, seeing the progress made by people every day is helping many people of color get through each day with a sense of hope.

As mentioned before, many people — including those who are not AAPI — have been using their voices to speak up for the AAPI community. However, there have also been instances where Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Black people and African Americans have done what I personally like to call “subtle representation.” What I have noticed on social media is that many people — the majority of whom are extremely supportive and advocate for AAPIs otherwise as well — tend to show more support for people of color than usual when it comes to “awards season.” For hugely popular award shows, such as the Golden Globes, the Grammy Awards, The Critics’ Choice Awards, and most notably, the Academy Awards, most commonly referred to as “The Oscars,” this is the most apparent. These shows happen when many people gather to celebrate their favorite actors, directors, and screenwriters alongside many others in the film industry to recognize the remarkable achievements made in film every year. These shows are also known highly for the glitz and glamour, and of course, the beautiful outfits.

In years past, these shows have been labeled as “rigged” by a large percentage of people, as they began to realize that many people of color were not being recognized by the Major Motion Picture Association (MMPA), “The Academy” who counts the award nominees for the Academy Awards, and other boards who decide what and who will be nominated for these accolades.

According to an article from Financial Times, “In 2019, ethnic minorities made up just over 40 percent of the US population, 33 percent of mainstream film roles, and just 17 percent of Oscars nominees in the five years since 2016 — an underrepresentation ratio of more than two to one.” This is a photo of the statistic from the article:

Cont: “One of the reasons put forward for this is that the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is itself overwhelmingly white and male. The Academy has more than 7,000 members, and even though it has ramped up its invitation rates and added a more diverse field every year in the past decade, the small number of new recruits relative to the existing membership means progress is slow.However, the problem goes beyond awards. Minorities are under-represented among all mainstream actors in Hollywood. The representation gap is closing, but at the current rate it would take about seven years for non-white actors to get lead roles in major movies in proportion to their share of the US population” (The Oscars diversity problem in charts, 2020).

This has sparked outrage over the years that have led many people, including myself, to stop watching these hugely popular award shows altogether.

Recently, however, many people of color have been recognized for their achievements in film and television, particularly actors and actresses. In terms of Academy Awards, these nominations include, but are not limited to: Viola Davis for Best Actress for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020), both Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield for Best Supporting Actor for “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021), and Riz Ahmed for Best Actor for “Sound of Metal” (2019), as well as Steven Yeun for “Minari” (2020), and the late Chadwick Boseman for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020).

Noticeably, there are many people of color being honored for their work in film. Although, that’s surprisingly not the end of the representation.

Many may know about the film “Nomadland” (2020), which was recently nominated for the category of Best Feature Film at the Academy Awards. However, not many people think about the writer and director behind the film, Chloé Zhao. Zhao is a Chinese filmmaker who rose to fame after her debut film, “Songs my Brothers Taught Me” (2015), which is about a boy named Johnny and his sister Jashuan who live with their single mother on a reservation.

This film showcased Zhao’s talent and ability to provide voices to underrepresented groups such as Indigenous people and Native Americans. According to an article from Vogue, titled, “How Chloé Zhao Reinvented the Western,” Zhao became known as the person who brought back the audience's love of Western films, after her next film, “Rider” (2017), about a cowboy who almost suffers a near-death experience after an accident while horseback riding. John Powers, the author of the Vogue article, stated “Indeed, what drives Zhao’s film forward is a question of identity: If he can’t ride—if he’s been stripped of the work that provides a sense of purpose and dignity to his life—who is he?” (Powers 2018).

The success of these two films allowed Zhao to explore new territory. After shining the spotlight on Indigenous people and cowboys, she then presented audiences with her latest film, “Nomadland” (2020).

“Nomadland” (2020) is a film about a woman in her sixties named Fern (portrayed by acclaimed actress Frances McDormand) who loses everything she has during the Great Recession and travels around in her van, living out her days as a modern-day nomad. This premise is quite interesting, as many modern-day audiences do not know about the lives of nomads, myself included. After watching the film, I learned a bit more about nomads and got to see how they live their daily lives.

The character the film focuses on the most is that of Fern. As an audience member, you are treated to scenes where Fern goes through different environments and situations, with her head held high and always quick to explain why she lives the nomad lifestyle.

While Frances McDormand is not a nomad herself in real life, Zhao casted real-life nomads, including Swankie, Bob Wells, and Linda May, all of whom make frequent appearances in the film, offering insight to Fern on the ways of living “the nomad life” and exploring your potential.

Chloé Zhao has been able to make many films showcasing her range in subject matter and her attention to underrepresented groups. I had not heard of Zhao’s previous work prior to watching “Nomadland” (2020) for the first time. Upon a second viewing and additional research, I discovered that “Zhao shot the delicate road movie “Nomadland” in secret even as she tackled Hollywood’s biggest franchise machine,” according to an article from IndieWire in 2020 written by Eric Kohn. This proved Zhao’s passion for the subject and her drive to represent nomads in today’s modern day and age.

After watching the film on Hulu a few times, I then made it a point to watch the Golden Globe awards this year and see what was in store for “Nomadland” (2020). Since the word about the amount of nominations for the film was going around, I thought I would check out the awards show, which I had not revisited for almost four years. It was then where I saw all of the nominees for each “huge” category, such as Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Motion Picture (in a specific category). I was excited to see Chloé Zhao win an award, no matter what category it was for.

I watched through each category, one by one, and I couldn’t believe the amount of times I heard the words “Nomadland” and “Chloé Zhao” one after another.

At the end of the award show, Chloé Zhao won three Golden Globe awards. One for Best Screenplay of a Motion Picture, one for Best Director of a Motion Picture, and the third for Best Motion Picture, Drama. The achievements Zhao has made so far in her life have led her to this point. These were her first major award wins, and since the Golden Globe award ceremony was filmed socially-distant from all of the stars, she accepted all of these awards in her pajamas, her hair donned in braids. At some points when the presenters called her name, Zhao was distracted almost entirely, looking at desktop and doing a double-take at her camera, her hand covering her agape mouth. Her reactions, which were quite innocent and child-like, ended up rather mature as she humbly accepted her awards, providing a speech for each win.

During times of hate and injustice, it is important for modern day audiences and people of all walks of life to find common ground with one another and celebrate what makes us who we are. One of the most clever albeit sneaky methods of getting people to connect with one another in terms of ending hatred of racial groups, particularly AAPI, is through film and television. Many people have an affinity and appreciation for Asian culture, but understanding the roots of where people come from, the significance of what they are passionate about, and how we can all evolve no matter who we think we are or where we come from can truly change our perspective on one another. With a career led by passion, a power for representation and the ability to provide a voice for underrepresented groups, writer, director, producer, and filmmaker Chloé Zhao was able to provide representation for many people in her career, highlighting her passions and constantly evolving her strength as a filmmaker. Simultaneously, the advancements in her career and her success with “Nomadland” (2020) helped her become an unstoppable tour de force, and it provided representation for her and other Asian Americans as well, who really need a figure in their lives that they can look up to and represents them on and off screen.

- Meghan Dhawan

Cover Photo Source:

bottom of page