After a ceremony in which numerous awards were won by women and people of color, when milestones were being reached left and right, Green Book was quite possibly the safest choice the Academy could have made — a largely enjoyable but simultaneously forgettable movie about how all we need to do to overcome racism is talk to each other.
It’s the kind of movie the Academy has rewarded in other forms numerous times, going all the way back to 1947’s anti-Semitism awareness drama Gentleman’s Agreement, which won three Oscars — including Best Picture — for its somewhat preachy premise of a journalist pretending to be Jewish to see if people treat him worse.
I say this not to bury Green Book, which is a thoroughly adequate movie that is at least not as bad as one of the other nominees this year. (Looking at you, Bohemian Rhapsody!) But even knowing how often the wild process by which the Academy chooses Best Picture yields broad-based consensus picks (rather than the more daring movies I might rather the Oscars reward), it’s still not hard to feel like Green Book, which beat out numerous more challenging films, is one of the blandest winners in a long, long time, and maybe even the worst since, I don’t know — The Artist in 2011? Crash in 2006?
Yeah, I have seen worse movies than Green Book. As mentioned, I have seen worse 2019 Best Picture nominees than Green Book. But c’mon, Academy. Roma was right there. Black Panther was right there. BlacKkKlansman was right there. So what is it about this formula — this overfamiliar idea that all we need to do to beat bigotry is get to know each other better — that keeps bringing it into the Oscars’ good graces?
Throughout this awards season, it frequently seemed like the folks associated with Green Book were trying to inoculate themselves from criticism about the film’s white-centric point of view by bringing out the movie’s fans from across the racial and political spectrum.
Need to point to a nonwhite figure who’s been in the movie’s corner from day one? Well, there’s executive producer Octavia Spencer, a black woman. And the most consistently recognized person attached to the movie is Mahershala Ali, now a two-time Best Supporting Actor winner.
Additionally, when it came time for the Oscars to air Green Book’s Best Picture clips package near the end of the night, it was introduced by actress Amandla Stenberg (the 20-year-old star of the much better The Hate U Give) and Georgia Rep. John Lewis, the 79-year-old civil rights legend. It was like literally everybody involved knew what was about to happen and wanted to insist that you couldn’t be mad about Green Book winning Best Picture if both Stenberg and Lewis liked the movie.
The easy answer as to why Green Book remained so popular, all awards season long, has been that it lets white folks off the hook for whatever responsibility we bear for the crushing weight of systemic racism. And I think this is generally true. It is, after all, a movie in the rough genre of Driving Miss Daisy and other tales of respectability politics, where good-hearted, saintly black folks teach coarser, prejudiced white people that it’s okay to embrace people of other races.
What’s interesting is just how rooted these films remain in the 1950s and ’60s, no matter how far we travel from the civil rights era. Gentleman’s Agreement is not, to my mind, a great film, but it was about a contemporary problem in a way that so many of the films that followed in its footsteps just aren’t. Both Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book relegate racism to the past, making it a problem that has been dealt with. You can see where that message would be particularly alluring to white people.
But the idea that Green Book is just for self-congratulatory white folks is too easy. The black people and other people of color who just love Green Book aren’t limited to the few who have turned up to support the movie at awards shows. They’re scattered throughout the film industry and throughout the increasingly diverse Academy membership that just awarded the movie Best Picture. And at heart, the Academy will always be the Academy, no matter how diverse it gets, and the Academy will always be a sucker for a feel-good movie about how the difficult work of fixing a problem lies outside the purview of the sorts of rich and comfortable folks who make up the Academy.
That is what I keep coming back to with Green Book’s Best Picture win, ultimately. It is a movie that safely situates a problem in the past, and when it comes time to suggest a solution to that problem, it doesn’t try to look at that problem via a broader lens (like BlacKkKlansman or even Black Panther). It makes no effort to suggest the ways every member of society — especially those who benefit from its many power imbalances — is implicated somehow. Instead, it suggests that the problem of prejudice is confined to one-on-one relationships, that everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes, but if you just try to be better, maybe that will be enough.
And, like, that message isn’t wrong. We all have prejudices we have to work to overcome, and doing our best to look at the people around us with unjaundiced eyes is good. But the way Green Book jumps from “this is the story of two guys who did just that” to “this is the story of how we can all do just that” is what marks it as sentimentalist claptrap.
It’s a comforting fantasy, in a year when the Oscars didn’t always seem sure how much they wanted to embrace comforting fantasies — until the very last minute.
The period in the history of the Academy Awards that this current one most resembles is the late 1960s, when then-Academy president Gregory Peck saw the way the organization had become hidebound and stuck in its ways and instituted measures to remake its ranks, particularly by letting in lots and lots of youthful voters.
Change took hold right away — but mostly at the nominations stage. This was the era when 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate, both classics of late-’60s youth cinema, received tons of nominations but didn’t end up winning that many awards. And what film did win Best Picture the same year those two films were nominated? The stodgy race-issues drama In the Heat of the Night, a movie about a white cop and a black cop who learn to overcome their prejudices by working together. (Hey, at least that movie was set in what was then the present day.)
The next few Oscars ceremonies saw the Best Picture prize veer wildly from the sorts of familiar Academy favorites that could have won at any point in the awards’ history — like the mega-musical Oliver!, which won in 1969, and the biopic Patton, which won in 1971 — to darker, edgier films that marked the new American cinema, like 1970 winner Midnight Cowboy and 1972 champ The French Connection.
I like most of these movies (though Oliver! is kind of a bore.) They’ve stood the test of time in a way that plenty of other Best Picture winners haven’t. But at the time of their release, they easily could have been seen as the crumbling Hollywood studio system first resisting, then finally giving way to a youth movement it had tried to co-opt before it essentially took over. The 1970s might be the best decade ever for Best Picture winners, having honored both Godfather films, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall, and The Deer Hunter, and it’s hard to see any of those movies having won Best Picture without the massive overhauls to the membership Peck made in the late ’60s.
But even as the Oscars were recognizing more daring movies in the ’70s, they were still occasionally giving Best Picture to films like Rocky, to big crowd-pleasers that made lots of money. The Oscars are always, first and foremost, going to be about projecting an image of Hollywood as a place with vaguely liberal politics, completely anodyne views on race and gender (that nonetheless mask some horrifying prejudices), and a business model that’s the envy of people all over the world.
The Oscars can’t let go of movies like Green Book because the Oscars can’t let go of the idea that the awards celebrate an industry that tells stories that can make the world a better place. The membership will evolve, and it’s easy to see just how seismically the Academy’s most recent membership changes have made new winners possible — just ask everybody who won for Black Panther or Roma. Just ask Spike Lee, or the women who won directing prizes this year in all three shorts categories and for documentary feature.
But the Academy will always, always be ready to over-congratulate a comforting fantasy about how all we need to do to save the world is just tell each other the right story about ourselves. On some level, that’s always going to be what the movies are all about.