Capping off a year that boasted movies as progressive as “Black Panther,” “The Favourite” and “BlacKkKlansman,” the Oscars took us back in time on Sunday, giving Best Picture to something straight out of 1989.
“Reverse Driving Miss Daisy” ― you know it as “Green Book” ― nabbed the top prize, and with it the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sent a clear message about how Hollywood sees race in 2019. The film tells the story of real-life black jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) through the lens of the racist white chauffeur (Viggo Mortensen) in his employ, treating the latter as a hero because he overcomes his bigotry. It’s a clichéd, insulting conceit that dupes audiences into feeling good when the white character extends mild graciousness.
A “Green Book” win is proof positive that popular culture has only improved so much on matters of race since “Crash” won Best Picture in 2006.
The category’s preferential balloting system ensures the trophy goes to a movie that hits a consensus spot among voters. The winner therefore stands in as a median representation of the academy’s taste, providing a snapshot of how Hollywood views itself. This year, it turns out people were most comfortable handing the industry’s highest honor to a movie that places its black character in the backseat, literally and figuratively.
The win also tells us just how little the academy pays attention to the discourse surrounding the titles in contention. Shirley’s family called “Green Book” a “symphony of lies,” saying it greatly embellished the central friendship and challenging its assumption that Shirley was disconnected from the black community. Ali, who won Best Supporting Actor on Sunday, apologized to Shirley’s relatives in response. Factual integrity isn’t paramount in a fiction film, but in this case the script distorts a black man’s biography to benefit its white lead. Voters didn’t seem to care about that flap, nor did they mind that Mortensen used the N-word at a post-screening Q&A while trying to make a point about how such slurs are no longer acceptable. By the time director Peter Farrelly was apologizing for having exposed his penis on sets when he was younger, everyone had already made up their minds about the movie.
The academy had so many chances to get it right this year. “Roma,” a luscious black-and-white Mexican drama about an indigenous houseworker, was Best Picture’s presumed front-runner, but it looks like Hollywood wasn’t quite ready to give a disruptive platform like Netflix the big kahuna. “Black Panther” faced a similar dilemma: It would have been the first superhero film to prevail, suggesting a mark of confidence for the genre that’s pulverizing the marketplace. (Furthermore, it offered the academy a chance to reward a movie about race that, unlike “Green Book,” had something new to say.) And “A Star Is Born,” which many initially thought would sweep the entire season, was a way of endorsing an age-old romance that has yet to go out of fashion.
In the end, none of those were safe enough. “Green Book” convinced the overwhelmingly white voting body that recognizing a white man’s portrait of another white man seeing past the color line is noble. Apparently the institution’s recent diversification initiatives weren’t enough to keep the savior narrative used in “The Blind Side,” “The Help” and “Dances with Wolves” at bay. As a result, it’s likely this will go down as one of the worst Best Picture choices on record.
The “Green Book” victory is a fitting finale to a particularly drama-filled awards season that started in August with the contentious introduction of a category meant to honor an “outstanding achievement in popular film.” The accolade was quickly disbanded, but controversies didn’t stop coming, from “Bohemian Rhapsody” director Bryan Singer’s sexual assault allegations to the homophobic jokes that effectively ended Kevin Hart’s hosting gig. To give Best Picture to something as smart as “The Favourite” or as forward-thinking as “Black Panther” would be out of character.
It makes all too much sense, two years into Donald Trump’s presidency, that Hollywood has crowned a film with regressive American values. This is, after all, a tribunal that prides itself on liberalism but often can’t recognize its own blind spots. As Spike Lee said at the end of the night, “The ref made a bad call.”