The Problem with Nomadland’s Amazon Warehouse Scenes

Frances McDormand as Fern in Nomadland.
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

When journalist Jessica Bruder started reporting her 2017 ebook Nomadland: Surviving America within the Twenty-First Century, the foreclosures and vaporized investments of the Great Recession have been pushing many seniors to hit the highway. She met aged Americans throughout the nation who have been residing out of automobiles to save lots of their meager Social Security advantages and performing grueling bodily labor to outlive — individuals like then-64-year-old Linda May. A seasonal employee at CamperForce, Amazon’s jobs program for van-dwelling retirees, she skilled dizziness throughout her shifts on the Amazon warehouse that landed her within the emergency room and acquired a repetitive movement damage from utilizing her scanner gun. Another CamperForce employee, 71-year-old Chuck Stout was knocked flat by a field that flew off the conveyor belt at Amazon, his head hitting the concrete ground with a thud; moments later, in-house medics had him again on his toes, declared he didn’t have a concussion, and despatched him again to work.

The nomads didn’t get harm solely at Amazon. While working as a campground host in California, Linda May broke a rib whereas bear-proofing a dumpster; Charlene Swankie, 72, cracked three ribs whereas campground-hosting within the Rockies. While staffing an amusement park, Steve Booher, 68, fell from a loading platform and onto a conveyor belt, fracturing his cranium. He died.

Bruder describes the nomads as “plug-and-play labor, the epitome of comfort for employers looking for seasonal staffing. They seem the place and when they’re wanted. They carry their very own houses … They aren’t round lengthy sufficient to unionize. On jobs which are bodily tough, many are too drained even to socialize after their shifts.” As one 77-year-old employee instructed her: “They love retirees as a result of we’re reliable. We’ll show up, work exhausting, and are mainly slave labor.”

Reading Bruder, we perceive that these “accidents” are the logical outcomes of an financial system that takes benefit of the nation’s most susceptible. So when 60-something protagonist Fern (Frances McDormand) rolls up in an old white van to work at an actual Amazon warehouse within the first three minutes of Nomadland, director Chloé Zhao’s fictional movie adaptation of Bruder’s ebook, we’re tensed for sophistication battle. But Zhao’s adaptation, which follows Fern as she drives by majestic landscapes within the American west choosing up momentary employment, is just superficially the identical narrative.

Already an Oscar favourite, many critics have praised Nomadland as a portrait of contemporary America. The thought of authenticity has been core to Zhao’s earlier movies, which have been developed across the real-life tales of her cast of largely non-professional actors; she imports this system to Nomadland, that includes precise nomads from Bruder’s ebook, together with Linda May and Swankie. Fern, nevertheless, is a fictional character, sutured into the panorama by Zhao and McDormand to be our compassionate, dryly humorous, Shakespeare-reciting information to the nomadic world. Crucially, not like the themes within the ebook, Fern has no complaints about her jobs—together with her time at Amazon. And as a result of the movie is primarily a personality research of her, it exchanges Bruder’s sharp indignation over capitalist exploitation for a muddled message about particular person freedom that downplays the actual stakes of gig labor.

An Amazon warehouse, as seen in Nomadland.
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

According to the movie’s backstory, Fern misplaced her job and home when the United States Gypsum Company shut down, and alongside with it shuttered the small firm city of Empire, Nevada in 2011. Fern is the widow of a person who additionally labored on the gypsum plant earlier than he died; they by no means had youngsters. She’s haunted by her late husband’s reminiscence, recalling a less complicated, safer time when “there was nothing in our manner.” She chooses the highway, we study, not as a result of she has no different choices, however so she will be able to mourn, and get well a way of chance.

In McDormand’s latest Vogue cowl story, she reveals Fern was an emanation of a fantasy she had in her 40s, telling her husband, filmmaker Joel Coen: “When I’m 65, I’m altering my title to Fern, I’m smoking Lucky Strikes, ingesting Wild Turkey, I’m getting an RV, and hitting the highway.” It was McDormand, who after studying Bruder’s ebook, enlisted Zhao to carry that imaginative and prescient to life. In an interview throughout Nomadland’s movie pageant circuit, McDormand, an adoptee who nonetheless calls herself and her organic mom “white trash,” says she modeled Fern after her youthful self as she struck out into the world. “There’s a childlike high quality that we have been actually fascinated with for Fern… the place I began at 17, she begins at 61.” This would possibly clarify why McDormand’s Fern is so insistent on self-reliance: she spurns gives of spare rooms from the financially safe suburbanites who care about her, preferring her Econoline to their stunning, tidy houses. When she has to borrow cash from her sister (Melissa Smith) to pay for van repairs, she repeatedly insists that she’ll pay her again. She might need to shit in a five-gallon bucket, but it surely’s all price it, as a result of she’s a free lady, not a sufferer, and he or she’s going to smoke these Lucky Strikes.

There’s nothing incorrect with portraying disenfranchised of us as daring, resilient, individuals — most are — as long as we absolutely account for the constructions aligned in opposition to them. It’s why it’s not sufficient to name important staff “heroes”: we have to get them hazard pay, day off, and PPE. But that is the place Nomadland stumbles, apparently deciding it wasn’t potential to each painting Fern as dignified and depict the grim fact of migrant labor. The tough edges have been sanded off: We see Fern saunter down the Amazon warehouse ground with a bin, capturing a smile at Linda May, who’s scanning packages close by. We see her on lunch break with a desk of smiling coworkers; their cheerful supervisor reveals off track lyrics tattooed on their arm. After work, Fern runs into an old good friend, who asks, how’s working at Amazon? “Great cash,” Fern replies. And that’s the extent of the movie’s perception in regards to the e-commerce large, which finally ends up disappearing blandly into Nomadland’s terrain. Zhao opts for the same view from nowhere on Fern’s different gigs as a campground host, line prepare dinner, and sugar beet plant employee. These are cast as interchangeable backdrops, not particular challenges to beat. It feels much less like creative license than a betrayal of staff’ actuality.

In interviews, the filmmakers have given blended solutions about whether or not Nomadland is a “political” film. Zhao instructed Indiewire final September that she wished to keep away from politics: “I attempted to deal with the human expertise and issues that I really feel transcend political statements to be extra common — the lack of a cherished one, trying to find residence.” She instructed Vulture’s Alison Willmore that politics have been embedded into Nomadland’s each body “for those who look deeply… it’s simply, sure, there’s the attractive sundown behind it.” But in an interview with The Wrap earlier this month, Zhao’s associate and cinematographer Joshua James Richards mentioned it was a “bizarre argument to say the film is making an enormous essential assertion” about Amazon. “I imply, we merely show Fern working there. We additionally show a Ford Econoline as effectively, however I don’t suppose we’re making an enormous essential assertion about Ford. Obviously, you’ll find politics in something.”

We get a bit extra perception from McDormand, who has defined that she acquired permission to shoot in Amazon by sending an electronic mail to the corporate’s senior VP of enterprise improvement, Jeff Blackburn. “It was proper earlier than they began giving individuals $15 an hour,” she instructed The Hollywood Reporter final fall. “This was a extremely sensible transfer for them as a result of … we’re telling a narrative about an individual who’s benefiting from exhausting work, and dealing on the Amazon achievement heart is tough work, but it surely pays a wage.” Of course, paying a wage could be thought-about the naked minimal. (And whether or not it’s a good wage is much from a consensus amongst staff themselves.)

Linda May and Fern stretch earlier than their warehouse shift.
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

What type of movie would Nomadland have been if the actual nomads’ views had been entrance and heart? Amazon warehouse staff have reported strolling as much as twenty miles a day on concrete, carrying items throughout large warehouses whereas attempting to beat a digital-countdown timer, with no advantages for CamperForce recruits in addition to a stipend to assist cowl campground charges. Near the top of Bruder’s ebook, Linda May gives a blistering tackle Amazon, with a readability that’s utterly omitted from her efficiency in Zhao’s movie: “I hate this fucking job,” she says, calling the corporate “most likely the largest slave proprietor on the planet.” Another aged CamperForce employee, Patty DiPino, confesses to Bruder that she tells her mates to not purchase on Amazon. “I imply, the wealthy are getting richer whereas we’re sitting right here getting poorer.” Bruder informs us that DiPino finally dies of most cancers. On DiPino’s Facebook web page, a good friend posts a memorial: “You are lastly debt free and residing in your perpetually residence! No extra freezing within the desert or in Kansas! No extra cramped areas … I’ll miss you dearly.”

These tales are blatantly absent from the movie adaptation. By skipping over the mistreatment that circumscribes so many nomads’ ultimate years, the filmmakers find yourself provincializing their experiences and diminishing them. It performs into platform capitalists’ favourite speaking level: that momentary gig work, shorn of all rights and advantages, is what the employees need, as a result of freedom! as a result of flexibility! It portrays gig work as a refuge throughout exhausting occasions, when the reality is momentary jobs are sometimes more durable to search out throughout crises just like the pandemic — and solely exacerbate staff’ uncertainty. By telling half the story, the movie misses the core perception that made Bruder’s ebook so heart-wrenching: that there isn’t any escape from the American financial system, and that it preys upon the nomads constantly. Not solely by leaving them houseless, however by then exploiting their precarity to work them straight into the bottom.

Over the final 12 months, the inhumanity Bruder described has been made plain. Amazon bosses have gained astonishing wealth whereas throwing their staff into the trail of a virus that has left practically half 1,000,000 Americans expired. As I write this, Amazon staff in Alabama are voting on a historic unionization effort. They are protesting unsafe working situations on the pandemic’s entrance traces; they need to have the ability to eat lunch and take rest room breaks with out concern of getting fired. The firm’s all-out efforts to quash the motion communicate volumes.

Not each story in regards to the current must be explicitly political. But why cast precise survivors in a drama about their wrestle, then invent a brand new, much less susceptible character simply to water it down? It looks like a missed alternative, as if the filmmakers squeezed actual life right into a narrative they hoped would resonate extra broadly — however ignored exactly what made it so pressing. For too many individuals, there’s no driving into the sundown. There’s simply the sting of breaking down, repeatedly.

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