When Julia Roberts, star of Ben is Back, opened her envelope and announced Green Book, the first emotion to come over me was relief. Sure it was bad, Green Book is problematic in a number of ways, but it could have been worse. At least it wasn’t Bohemian Rhapsody, right? But in the minutes and hours after the Oscars ended, a deep sense of disappointment set in. Not only because the best picture winner was deeply undeserving of that moniker, but because it managed to cast a pall over a night in which the Academy was finally recognizing a diverse, progressive set of films and filmmakers.
Let’s start with some of those highlights, because Sunday in a lot of ways was a banner night for diversity and inclusion in Hollywood. Regina King took home the first statue of the ceremony for her powerful performance in the woefully overlooked If Beale Street Could Talk. She was followed by Asian-American directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi taking home Oscars for their free climbing documentary Free Solo. Ruth Carter and Hannah Beachler became the first African-American women to win non-acting Oscars in 35 years for their work on Black Panther.
Even as Bohemian Rhapsody began picking up awards (Achievement in Editing, YIKES!) so too did Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Roma and BlacKkKlansman. As we closed in on Best Picture it began to feel like there was a real chance that we could see the big prize go to a deserving film that explored class, race or identity in a meaningful way. Instead we got Green Book.
This isn’t to disparage anyone that liked Green Book. I didn’t hate it myself when I first saw it back in December. It’s a feel good, crowd pleasing film that is well acted and constructed. The problem is that Best Picture represents so much more than the surface level quality of its winner.
Best Picture has always been a time capsule of sorts. Good filmmaking is generally table stakes for a nomination, but the winner is rarely the critical or commercial consensus of what truly was the best of the year. Instead the Academy tends to opt for a movie that captures a sentiment or image of the times. We can look back at winners of eras past and glean what was deemed important in that time.
From that perspective, maybe a Green Book win was inevitable. If we’re being honest, no film captured the feeling of living 2018 than Peter Farrelly’s racial harmony road trip. Last year, like many in recent memory, the experience of white men was prioritized over that of minorities. All the while, those same white men in power decried a lack of unity and compromise. Green Book is the happy ending story that boils down to solving racism with single friendship. For better or (almost certainly) worse, its the way much of the Academy looks at race.
That ideology makes the decision all the worse. If racism could be magically fixed by a road trip and a bucket of fried chicken (who the fuck signed off on that scene???), then the film world wouldn’t be so frustrated right now. Alas, we all know that race is a subject without a simple solution. Its why films such as BlacKkKlansman and Blindspotting, among others, were so powerful in 2018. Those movies explored the way racism shapes the black experience in America for black people. That sentence may sound redundant but the best picture winner is laser focused on the effect of the black experience in America for its white protagonist.
Green Book is underserving based on merit alone. It puts forward a dangerously regressive view of racism in this country. Of course, this is all made worse by the numerous controversies around the film. So many great writers have put stories out about those off screen gaffes that each should have sunk the movie’s candidacy. I recommend reading about them here, here and elsewhere.
Accounting for everything, Green Book’s win is one we will look back on years from now and think “how did that happen?” There’s nothing we can do about that now. We need to remember the reasons that we ended up here and reflect on why that line of reasoning was problematic. Let Green Book be the lesson that keeps the next Green Book from winning best picture.