(Photo credit: https://www.okayplayer.com/culture/green-book-wikipedia-page-sabotaged-after-oscars-win.html)
The Oscars getting it wrong – hilariously, spectacularly, unfathomably wrong – is nothing new. Hell, it’s practically a tradition in of itself. Much as I love Rocky, I’ll be the first to admit that it beating out Taxi Driver was ridiculous. Dances With Wolves was great, yes, but better than Goodfellas? For all of Forrest Gump’s charm, was it really better than Pulp Fiction or The Shawshank Redemption? And Driving Miss Daisy beating out Do The Right Thing? Well-
Actually, let’s stop there, because that kind of ties into the 2019 Oscars kind of perfectly. Scarily perfectly, in fact. In 1989, the Academy had a choice; a safe, cushy movie that kind of-sort of-didn’t really make them confront the ugly realities of the world we live in, or one of the most vital, incendiary, confrontational movies, one that shoved your face into the world and said, “This is you.”
Naturally, they chose Driving Miss Daisy. And now, exactly 30 years later, they have learned nothing.
And I had high hopes, too. I feel like every movie lover has that moment when they realize just how bullshit the Oscars are (mine was seeing Crash, and then a little later catching Brokeback Mountain and leaning that Crash had beaten it out), but all the same, I hoped. I really did. Not one year ago, Moonlight had crushed what had been considered to be the safest of all Oscar bets, the loving ode to Hollywood and musicals, La La Land. That the Academy had done this implied that maybe, maybe, they had finally grown some balls.
Nope. Here we are again, with BlacKKKlansman and Black Panther both in the running, and what won? Green Book.
It feels weird to say that I’m a huge Spike Lee fan when BlacKKKlansman is the first joint of his that I’ve seen on the big screen. I saw it in a packed house on a Thursday night, with many of my fellow theater-goers – at least, the ones in my immediate vicinity – of the elderly white persuasion. They were into the film, very vocally – they chuckled along with the jokes, they “ooohed” to Ron Stallworth standing up for himself, they audibly cringed and boo-ed when Trump was vaguely alluded to, and they cheered the end, when the racists get what’s coming to them, and everything is wrapped up in a nice, neat bow.
And then something very interesting happened. Because the film didn’t stop there, and I can honestly say that what we were treated to next was stunning. We cut to clips of Charlottesville. Trump speeches. Racism – modern day racism, something I genuinely don’t think any of Green Book’s writers think exist – and terrorism. Mass hysteria. No more fun and games.
The crowd was silent. Someone coughed. No one had turned against the movie, per say, but it was obvious they had been thrown for a loop. We had been promised a good time clowning at a few goofy racists, laughing at how incompetent and obviously evil they were back in the olden days, because obviously that’s where racism was, and only there. And sure, sometimes the movie would get serious, but not too serious. Right?
The ending changed all that. Spike Lee’s message rang out, loud and clear; we all had a good time here, he was saying, but don’t forget that for black people, this is reality. This is our everyday existence. You can go home, shrug all this off; we can’t.I was stunned. It was exactly as in-your-face confrontational as his previous masterpiece, Do The Right Thing. It was unapologetic and unafraid.
And then, as icing on the cake, they nominated Black Panther.
Love it, hate it, or feel underwhelmed by it, it’s impossible to deny how big a gamble Marvel took with Black Panther. Hiring Ryan Coogler, the master behind Fruitvale Station and Creed, Marvel was giving a multi-million dollar property to someone who’d never made a blockbuster. More than that, they were letting him make an unapologetically complex and nuanced movie – a genuine successor to Do The Right Thing in terms of racial understanding – all in the guise of a Marvel blockbuster. To say it paid off is obvious; to say it is easily the best MCU movie perhaps less so (though it’s by far the deepest and most emotionally wide-ranging). It was daring. It was ballsy. It was confrontational. It was everything we thought was a fluke in previous superhero films, and everything so many previous MCU movies just weren’t. And it was a Best Picture nomination.
And they went with Green Book.
Green Book, simply put, is a film for cowards, those lily-livered wimps who’d rather bury their heads in the sand and pretend racism was well and truly solved when one white guy gave one black guy fried chicken that one time. This film exists not only as the ultimate exercise in cinematic mediocrity but as the ultimate “but also” movie, the kind of film made for people who, when confronted with racism, randomly shout “BUT WHAT ABOUT BLACK-ON-BLACK VIOLENCE” out of nowhere. It’s a shallow, unfeeling movie with no interest in really diving into what drives these two people – how much of Don Shirley’s character is “part of his show”, or how long he spent cultivating his image, or whether or not Tony’s racism at the start is just ignorance, or something much deeper – this is all ignored in favor of a stupid, “They both need to change to get along” attitude. It is the last word in Oscar cowardice.
Consider the second Ancestral Plane visit in Black Panther. Killmonger has just usurped the throne from T’Challa and undergoes the same journey he previously did. Only, something’s wrong; whereas T’Challa was out in the open, here Killmonger is trapped inside the concrete walls he knew as a child, only able to see the vibrant sky from through a window. And whereas T’Challa was able to speak to his father man-to-man, as soon as Killmonger sees his Dad, he reverts – literally – to a little boy.
Meanwhile, Green Book has this scene where one guy feeds another guy fried chicken and this cures racism.
The really weird thing is, in some ways this was the best Oscars show in a while. Without a host, the thing moved along at a pretty brisk pace, and there were some fine speeches (petition to have every acceptance speech end with “LADY GAGA!” Bless you, Olivia Colman). I’ll never stop hoping the Oscars get it right. But they’ve been wrong – they’ve been cowards – so many times before.