The 91st annual Oscars are another shallow disappointment

by Joyce Lee | 2/26/19 10:49am

The Oscars held its 91st annual ceremony on Sunday, awarding Hollywood’s most prestigious filmmaking awards to the best films of the year ... or that’s the idea, anyways.

It seems that I make the same conclusion every year: the Oscars, for all of its prestige, is no longer as relevant to what makes a good film. A nomination is no longer a guarantee that a film is the most groundbreaking or the most innovative; it speaks more to the film’s general appeal and the tastes of the voting members of the Academy. At a time when filmmaking has become a craft that both shapes and is shaped by larger discussions about systemic injustices and representation, it seems clear that a film can no longer be judged in isolation. 

It’s relevant to keep this in mind when considering the surprising win of the night, “Green Book,” which won Best Picture over films like “Roma,” “BlackKklansman” and “Black Panther.” Spike Lee, who directed “BlackKklansman,” allegedly attempted to storm out of the building when the winner was announced, and at a post-show press junket, he held a glass of champagne and said, “This is my sixth glass ­— and you know why.” 

In many ways, Sunday was a historic evening. It was the first time that a black woman won an Oscar for either Best Production Design and Best Costume Design, as Hannah Beachler and Ruth E. Carter did respectively for their work in “Black Panther.” Spike Lee finally won an Oscar in a competitive category with Best Adapted Screenplay for “BlackKklansman.” Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for “Roma,” making it not only the fifth time in six years that a Mexican film director won in the category, but also a significant moment of representation for indigenous people in film. Mahershala Ali became only the second black person to win multiple Oscars with his Supporting Actor win, after Denzel Washington. The list goes on. 

But “Green Book” has made this night into a puzzle, with the film’s incessant controversies and middling critical reviews. At a time when the discussion about race and representation in Hollywood is becoming increasingly complex and films like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” are becoming both critical and commercial hits, “Green Book” seems like the odd egg out, as a somewhat antiquated story that looks at race relations as a problem that can be solved with a little bit of empathy and good will. 

The heart of the disagreements about what film should win Best Picture has shifted in recent years; it’s gone from arguing over the artistic merits of a film to examining how a film pushes boundaries in a culture that is becoming increasingly polarized. In 2018, films like “BlackKklansman,” “Sorry to Bother You,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Black Panther,” “Roma” and “Crazy Rich Asians” regularly led the cultural conversations of the importance of racial inclusion and the need for these stories to be told by creators who identify as people of color, as part of a marginalized minority. “Green Book” fails to do anything groundbreaking in light of these films; it pushes a message of racial harmony and understanding when the past few years have shown the bigotry and hate that lies beneath this false message — this message is not enough. The problem with the film lies in how it seeks to make people feel comfortable, that they can be the example of a “good non-racist.” For being able to empathize with and understand a black person in moments of horrific violence and racism, viewers can walk away with a sense of moral superiority that doesn’t address the aftermath. 

Justin Chang of the L.A. Times points out that the problem inherent to “Green Book” is how it seeks to tell a black man’s story from a white man’s perspective. Viewers empathize with Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer who drives pianist Don Shirley (Ali), a gay, black man who’s characterized by his intelligence and eloquent speech. These two characteristics mark Shirley as different from both a stereotypical black man of the era and from Vallelonga’s working-class mannerisms. As Chang points out, these qualities are only used in relation to Vallelonga’s perspective; they function as ways to make Vallelonga — and by extension, the audience — think better of Shirley, rather than as a way to understand Shirley’s artistry or identity. 

Defenders of the film might disagree, because “Green Book” is not objectively a terrible film. Ali and Mortensen do commendable jobs in their roles, and the film is both slick and competent. It recognizes acts of racism for what they are, and it attempts to portray a relationship that overcame societal norms to be truly warm and empathetic. But in 2018, when many other excellent films sought to portray truly complex, vivid portraits of minority experiences in the midst of marginalization, it seems disheartening and simply puzzling that the Academy thought “Green Book” was the best picture of the year. 

Yet, in another way, is it really so surprising that the notoriously conservative Academy didn’t have it in them to give the award to films that have made history as both cultural and commercial landmarks? For all the chatter about diversity and representation, there is a clear discomfort in recognizing films that openly critique systematic injustice without giving an audience a clear exception that they can hold onto to reduce their complicity. As an institution, the Academy Awards is losing its relevance because it refuses to recognize that filmmaking is moving beyond its standards of excellence, because its standards of excellence were never very inclusive or progressive. With an entire roster of movies that were created in recognition of this movement towards diversity, it can’t be denied that 2018 was still a monumental year in film — the Oscars just wasn’t part of it.