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Froma Harrop: Stop forcing every 'person of color' into a diversity story

Already bestowed awards elsewhere, there should be little surprise that Chloe Zhao has received the Oscar nomination for best director.

Portrait of Froma Harrop
Portrait of Froma Harrop

"Nomadland" is a remarkable movie about struggling Americans wandering the vast spaces of the interior west. Most of them are white, middle-aged and up, living in vans. The filmmaker, Chloe Zhao, is a Chinese woman who has captured their bare existence as they move through a bleak but beautiful landscape. Based on a nonfiction book of the same name, "Nomadland" combines actors with actual nomads playing themselves.

Already bestowed awards elsewhere, there should be little surprise that Zhao has received the Oscar nomination for best director. Thus, it is truly curious to see our woke media establishment treat this news not as recognition of a major creative talent but as evidence that Hollywood is finally noticing a nonwhite woman.

The New York Times story leads with "Chloe Zhao has become the first Chinese woman and the first woman of color to be nominated for best director." It didn't get to the name of her movie until the second paragraph. Another Times story is headlined "'Nomadland' Wins Big at Diverse BAFTAs" (the British Academy Film Awards).

And from The Washington Post this same week: "Chloe Zhao becomes 1st woman of color to win top DGA honor." (DGA stands for Directors Guild of America.)

This tendency to dump all nonwhites into the "people of color" basket is both dated and, frankly, patronizing. It's worth noting that the journalists behind the above headlines are themselves white.

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There is huge diversity among Blacks, Latinos and Asians -- in education, income and assimilation (into what most think of as mainstream American culture). Sure, disturbing racist elements continue to pollute our society. But white intellectuals who shuffle fellow intellectuals into their "people of color" category are doing the objects of their concern no favors.

It's undeniable that Hollywood used to take little notice of nonwhites, but that is old news. Fourteen Black actors have won Oscars -- and other Blacks have taken best screenplay, best original music score and so on.

Asians have won many Academy Awards, including three for best director. In 2020, "Parasite" won best picture. Not only was "Parasite" made by Asians and did it star Asians but it was also a South Korean movie.

Just wondering: Had "Nomadland" been about itinerant Chinese peasants and the filmmaker a white guy from Chicago, might the acclaim have set off woke handwringing about cultural appropriation? I mean, how could a white American possibly understand Chinese farmers?

Japan-born Kazuo Ishiguro won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for his novel "The Remains of the Day." It examines the inner life of an elderly English butler at a stately home. No one would dare opine that a non-Anglo-Saxon should not write of relationships between old-school English servants and the British upper class.

Later made into a movie, "The Remains of the Day" was nominated for eight Oscars in 1994.

Shakespeare couldn't have known much about court life in medieval Denmark when he wrote "Hamlet." A work need not be culturally accurate to speak universal truths.

The interesting cultural aspect of "Nomadland" is how well Zhao seemed to nail it. Without romanticizing or resorting to sentimentality, she caught the stoicism and the sense of loss among a group of aging Americans untethered from their former towns, financially insecure and drained of optimism.

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You don't see it and think, "Isn't it wonderful that Hollywood's corporate white men are recognizing a 'person of color' -- and a woman to boot?" You think, "Chloe Zhao made a very good movie and has been rightly nominated for best director."

By the way, if she wins, she will be the second, not the first, woman so honored.

Froma Harrop is a nationally syndicated columnist whose work regularly appears in the Grand Forks Herald.

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