There are plenty of pejoratives you can hurl at the Oscars — self-important, overlong, old-fashioned, out-of-touch — but in recent years, you can’t complain that they’ve lacked for drama. With the adoption of the preferential ballot in 2009, which asks Academy members to vote for Best Picture with a ranked list, the show’s biggest prize has become far more suspenseful, resulting in several splits between Director and Picture, and a few outright upsets, with Spotlight besting The Revenant and, memorably, Moonlight triumphing over La La Land. Last year, The Shape of Water, Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri were all strong contenders, and this Sunday’s ceremony again features several films with decent odds of walking away with the Academy Award.
That suspense has helped squash memories of bygone Oscar ceremonies in which towering front-runners such as Titanic or The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King turned the night into dull, lumbering coronations. Frankly, it’s boring to know at the start of the show what’s going to win, so the possibility of a surprise title being read for Best Picture — for instance, a Shakespeare in Love shocking the favored Saving Private Ryan — always gives the evening a surge of electricity.
But if this year’s Oscars comes with plenty of anticipation — and we’re not even talking about how the show will work without a host — there’s also some dread. Several films could go home with the top prize, but one choice among the pack would be particularly galling. This movie’s chances seemed remote a few months ago, but it’s now primed to pull off a possible upset, much to the chagrin of those whose despise the film and what it represents.
Seriously, what happens if Green Book wins?
It’s worth acknowledging that many people enjoyed this crowd-pleasing comedy-drama — “inspired by a true friendship,” as the posters say — about the bond that developed in the early 1960s between white, racist New York bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and black, gay pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) during a car trip through the South. Green Book has landed on myriad Top 10 lists, including that of Rolling Stone’s own Peter Travers, who praised the acting duo’s “flat-out fantastic” performances. The film won the prestigious Producers Guild Award and the Toronto Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award, two potent Oscar bellwethers. And Steven Spielberg reportedly called it “his favorite buddy movie since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
Directed with affection by Peter Farrelly, Green Book speaks to our national divisions and how they might be healed. But its possible triumph at Sunday’s Academy Awards isn’t a feel-good story akin to the one Farrelly and his capable cast peddle within the movie. The reason so many fans and critics alike fear Green Book’s victory is that it would highlight the discouraging, lingering fustiness of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the folks who decide each year what films and performances are best. No large voting bloc is perfect or uniform. (Hey, a majority of us didn’t vote for Trump, but we’re stuck with him anyway.) But for those who believe the Oscars matter — that they help to create an official-ish canon of indelible cinematic work — the momentum behind Green Book feels like the group’s fuddy-duddy tendencies coming back with a vengeance. We wanted to believe that Best Picture wins for patronizing depictions of race relations such as Driving Miss Daisy and Crash were a thing of the past. On Sunday, that happy illusion may be shattered.
To be clear, those previous winners (and Green Book) aren’t inherently evil. Each in its own way is advocating finding common cause with others not of the same race, recognizing that there is more that unites us than divides us. In a Trump era where prejudice is a political strategy and white nationalism is treated as one side of a “debate,” Green Book preaches hope and tolerance. But unlike Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman — the Do the Right Thing to Green Book’s Driving Miss Daisy — which prefers militant resistance and a skeptical outlook, Farrelly’s film views social ills as eminently curable, tidily resolving its tensions rather than giving them back to the audience to further ponder their complexities.
No one should question Farrelly’s honorable intentions, but Green Book nonetheless continues a frustrating, persistent habit of white filmmakers attempting to depict American racism, often from the perspective of an unaffected white protagonist. Tony Lip is Green Book’s main character, just as Jessica Tandy’s Daisy is the lead in Driving Miss Daisy. Even if they’re not those films’ saviors, per se, we learn about bigotry through their eyes — it’s something they come to realize is a scourge, as opposed to their African-American cohorts, who have to endure it. Whether in these movies or other award-winners such as Glory, The Blind Side or The Help, a distressing, recurring Oscar trend continues apace, which is that the Academy prefers these stories of racial healing told from a safe, white distance.
There was optimism that this trend might be ending. Thanks to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the Academy was shamed for (or, put more charitably, made aware of) its racial blind spots. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that, out of approximately 5,800 Academy voters, more than 93 percent were white and more than three-fourths male. The result: Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs took action, spearheading an initiative to invite new members, which aimed to double the number of women and people of color in the organization by 2020. (And if that helped make the membership a little younger, too, no one would complain: In 2013, the Los Angeles Times revealed the group’s average age was 63.)
At first, that initiative (consciously or not) seemed to be impacting the Oscars. At the 2014 ceremony, the wrenching slavery drama 12 Years a Slave, written and directed by black filmmakers and featuring a black protagonist, won Best Picture. Three years later, Moonlight, the story of a gay, black Florida youth, told by a black director and black co-writer, bested La La Land, a film that felt demonstrably white and sanitized by comparison. (The fact that Ryan Gosling’s character constantly declared his love for jazz didn’t help.) And this year’s Oscars are pleasingly diverse, with Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman and Roma — set and made in Mexico with an all-Mexican cast — all up for Best Picture. So, that’s progress, right?
Maybe, but societies have a dispiriting tendency of moving two steps forward and then taking one large step back. And the Academy’s past gaffes still haunt it. For years, Driving Miss Daisy’s win was held up as an example of how the Oscars are tone-deaf, the voters virtually ignoring the groundbreaking Do the Right Thing while celebrating an anodyne trifle. The infusion of more diverse voices within the Academy was meant to ensure such an embarrassment didn’t happen ever again. Green Book’s potential victory would argue that the Academy still has a long way to go.
Sure, there are several simplistic assumptions at work in that statement — including, most crucially, that all black Academy members automatically hate Green Book. (Keep in mind that Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer is one of the film’s executive producers.) But during a troubling period in which the Academy has seemed unsure of itself, floating the terrible idea of creating a Best Popular Movie category and seriously considering not airing all of its awards live, a Green Book win underscores the organization’s general malaise — especially when a far more adventurous, artistic and deserving film is right there ready to be picked this year.
Roma, a meditative deep-dive into the life of a Mexican family in the early 1970s, would be the first foreign-language entry to ever win Best Picture. Some have groused about filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s telling the story of a female maid, questioning his right to a woman’s narrative. Nonetheless, Roma offers a wider perspective on the world than the blinkered Academy usually embraces, and recent wins for 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight gave hope that the voters weren’t afraid to honor diversity while at the same time celebrating singular films. (And that’s to say nothing of the recent Oscar track record of the so-called “Three Amigos” — the trailblazing Mexican filmmakers Cuarón, Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro — who have won four of the last five Best Director prizes, which could very easily become five out of six if Cuarón, as expected, takes the trophy for Roma.)
If Green Book wins Best Picture, it won’t be the end of the world. We all know that the Academy has a history of terrible picks. But that doesn’t mean the Oscar membership needs to add to that woeful history. In a year where the voters seemed more willing than ever to recognize the finest in film — no matter who made it or where it originated — Green Book feels like the kind of outwardly safe choice that represents an old way of thinking, a mindset the Academy leadership has tried to combat with its diversity outreach. Yes, no large voting bloc is perfect or uniform — and it’s unfair to paint with too broad a brush when discussing the Academy’s disparate members. But if the bulk of them think Green Book is the most vibrant or challenging work that their art form produced in 2018, it’s more than fair to question their judgment. And their taste.