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Green Book’s big Oscar victory proves that the Academy, like America, still has a long way to go

Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures
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The 91st Academy Awards ended not with a bang but a groan. At least that’s the sound I heard—and made, and inferred from the Twitter reactions—when America’s eternal sweetheart, Julia Roberts, tore open the final envelope and announced the big winner. It was a disheartening end to what had been, all things considered, a reasonably bearable Oscar night. Yes, Bohemian Rhapsody picked up four awards, which is embarrassing. But the ceremony itself was brisk and enjoyable—having no host didn’t hurt it one bit, nor did the absence of viral-courting comedy routines and fawning montages. Plus, a wide spectrum of films ended up winning, the Academy handing out prizes to Black Panther, Roma, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, First Man, If Beale Street Could Talk, and—in the night’s most welcome shock—Olivia Colman’s sublime tragicomic performance in The Favourite. It was all going about as well as could be expected. And then they had to go and give Best Picture to Green Book, that middlebrow road dramedy about beating racism, one zinger and bucket of KFC at a time.

It would be a stretch to call the win a big surprise. Anybody paying attention over this seemingly never-ending awards season knew that Green Book was always a real threat, especially in a year without any clear front-runner. (That all eight Best Picture nominees ended up winning at least one Oscar is a testament to how close this race might have been, to how much the enthusiasm was spread around.) Ultimately, it was probably naïve to think, as I and many others did, that the Academy was going to hand its top prize to a black-and-white foreign-language movie released by Netflix. But fearing and accepting the very real possibility of a Green Book victory didn’t dull the sting of, you know, that actually happening.

To these eyes, Green Book isn’t an awful film. Both of the lead performances, by Viggo Mortensen and newly minted two-time Best Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali, are more nuanced than they had to be. And as a longtime Farrelly brothers fan, I’ll personally admit that I found it a little amusing to see a standard, self-congratulatory Hollywood social-issues movie with a main character broad and goofy enough to have appeared in, say, Kingpin. Hell, it’s probably not even the bottom of the 2019 Best Picture barrel; that dishonor is reserved for Bohemian Rhapsody, a glorified parody of biopic clichés—an accidental Walk Hard—trying to pass itself off as the real thing. But if Green Book wasn’t the worst of the eight films up, it was almost certainly the most retrograde, in its ideas and filmmaking. You watch it and think, “I thought we had moved past this sort of thing”—a dismayingly common sentiment in 2019.

In one way or another, and not simply by comparison, many of the other nominees felt intrinsically modern. Green Book’s most obvious counterpoint in the lineup, the yin to its yang, was Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a very different period piece about racism in America—and one that almost felt, in its film-closing flash forward to Charlottesville, like a preemptive corrective to the more implicitly past-tense depiction of intolerance in Peter Farrelly’s movie. But the Academy didn’t need to hand Best Picture to Lee to celebrate a film more in the step with the here and now, to honor something more relevant. They could have gone with Black Panther, or The Favourite, or Roma—films new in perspective, angle, style, and/or release strategy. Even Vice, for its flaws, feels like a movie that speaks to the present. And A Star Is Born, at the very least, is built around the supernova charisma of a contemporary pop star.

Faced with these options, the Academy reached instead for the comfort food of a throwback. Some have already compared Green Book to perhaps the most notorious of Best Picture winners, Paul Haggis’ 2005 Crash, which also pivots around an unspoken, simplistic “Can’t we all get along?” But Farrelly’s movie is closer in tone and spirit to a Hollywood race drama from the late 1980s, the kind designed to reinforce how far we’ve supposedly come as a country by inventing or dramatizing inspirational stories of racism overcome—think Driving Miss Daisy redux, as Spike essentially quipped last night. It’s very last century, the way Green Book puts its famous black subject, Don Shirley, in not just the literal but also the figurative backseat of its story, prioritizing the emotional journey of his white employee, Tony The Lip. (That no one mentioned Shirley in the Best Picture acceptance speech, instead noting that “It all began with Viggo Mortensen,” betrays where interests lay.) Likewise, isn’t Tony something of a white savior figure in broad comic drag, saving the Doc’s ass over and over again? If the film has a philosophy, intentional or no, it’s that old saw about a racist whose prejudices are shattered by a truly exceptional person of color—a fantasy Lee himself dismantled in one conversation about black stars in Do The Right Thing, and which doesn’t exactly square with how this country reacted to the election of its first black president, a very exceptional man by most measures.

There is something uncomfortably Trumpian about Green Book’s victory—and not just because its now Oscar-winning screenwriter, Nick Vallelonga, is a kindred spirit in anti-Muslim conspiracy theory. Like our current president, the movie weathered a campaign beset with controversy: Beyond those since-deleted tweets, the PR team had to contend with the film’s star saying the N-word on stage, with the Shirley family publicly disputing the characterization of the central relationship, and with the unearthed revelation that Farrelly used to whip out his penis on set as a prank. In any other year, just one of these scandals might have toppled the film’s Oscar chances. But Green Book survived it all. Sound familiar?

To be clear, I don’t mean that this is a movie with a right-wing sensibility, exactly. Superficially, anyway, it’s well-meaning—against intolerance and for equality, with little that could be called explicitly dog-whistle racist (though scenes of Tony chastising the Doc for not knowing “[his] people’s” music or forcing him to try fried chicken are highly cringe-worthy). If anything, Green Book feels like a very centralist Democrat pick: a movie for people who self-identity as liberal but also feel nervous about “radical” identity politics. It’s a movie that Bradley Whitford’s character in Get Out would brag about seeing three times in theaters.

No, if there’s a strong whiff of the 2016 election to the end of last night’s Oscars, it’s more about the rejection of progress and the reaffirmation of old-school values, in this case cinematic as well as cultural. When Moonlight won two years ago, it felt groundbreaking, like a turning point for the Academy. Here was a genuinely independent movie, made on a small budget, about black identity and queer desire—the kind of film, in other words, that never wins Best Picture, and is generally seen as lucky to have even been nominated. (It’s also the rare case where the Oscars honored what might actually be the very best movie of the year, which is a true revolution for that organization.) Now, I doubt that those who voted for Green Book this year were staging anything like a conscious revolt or backlash against Moonlight and all its win meant for movie culture and the apparently evolving preferences of the Academy. But to pick Green Book among a lineup of hipper, fresher, more daring movies is to unconsciously express nostalgia for a different time—for a film that captures the feel, but also maybe the outdated cultural attitudes, of yesterday’s cinema. Even if you see nothing political in the win, it at the very least represents regressive taste: Make movies great again, etc.

Much has been made, here and elsewhere, of the “new Academy”—of the way the organization reshaped itself in the aftermath of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, inviting members from around the world, attempting to at least give the appearance of diversifying its predominately old, white, and male membership. Many, myself included, presumptively attributed Moonlight’s victory to those new voices, including a bunch of international auteurs with assumedly much cooler sensibilities than those who have been picking Oscar winners for decades. Finally, we thought, the Academy is moving past antiquated ideas about what makes a film worthwhile. Without knowing who voted for what and why, Green Book’s victory suggests that the new Academy isn’t so different, at least in voting habits, from the old Academy. It suggests that this group still has a long way to go—and maybe that the Oscars, like the country where they’re held, progress slowly, taking one step back for every two steps forward. In more ways than one, let’s hope for a better outcome in 2020.