If you value diversity, you have to appreciate the effort this year.
The 2019 Oscars managed to avoid most of the problems people usually complain about. Given how many awards they present, a long show is unavoidable, but the pace this year seemed positively snappy, with more than one winner getting played off the stage at the biggest moment of their lives. Take a lesson, Hollywood. Practice your speech, and make sure it doesn’t last longer than your movie’s trailer.
Unlike #OscarsSoWhite, the 2019 version celebrated diversity in terms of both the nominated films and the presenters. After the lead-off medley by Adam Lambert and Queen, the show segued right into the Best Supporting Actress award, presented by Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Maya Rudolph. The winner? Regina King, for her performance in If Beale Street Could Talk. Three diverse women presenting a major award to a stellar African-American actor, from a film based on a James Baldwin novel? Nice.
Other presenters included Tyler Perry, Jennifer Lopez, Serena Williams, Tessa Thompson, and Michael B. Jordan. Luminaries who introduced the Best Picture nominees included Jose Andres, Diego Luna, Barbara Streisand, and Congressman John Lewis. If you value diversity, you have to appreciate the effort this year.
The winners also contributed to the mostly triumphant aura. Best Animated Short Bao and Best Documentary Short Period. End of Sentence evoked and celebrated women and sisterhood, mothers and parental love. Black Panther won Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, and Best Score—not bad for a comic-book movie. The cluttered, glossy, and sexuality-erasing Bohemian Rhapsody won the right awards—Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Best Performance by a Lead Actor, for Rami Malek’s incendiary portrayal of Freddie Mercury.
But I was dismayed by Green Book’s win for Best Original Screenplay—more on this movie later—though I had no problem at all with Mahershala Ali’s win for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Green Book’s saving grace, if it has one, is the acting, especially the performances of Ali, Viggo Mortensen, and Linda Cardellini.
These relatively minor disappointments were offset by Roma’s wins, including Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director (Alfonso Cuaron), and Best Cinematography (also Cuaron). Spike Lee’s hilarious and searing BlacKkKlansman deserved more than its win for Best Adapted Screenplay, but seeing Mr. Lee on the Oscars stage was still a feel-good moment, as was Olivia Colman’s endearingly meandering speech after she upset Glenn Close for Best Actress.
Still, the last award of the night left a sour aftertaste. The Academy chose to award this year’s Best Picture to Green Book. I have not yet seen Vice or A Star Is Born, but The Favourite, Roma, BlacKkKlansman, and Black Panther are better, more complicated, more sophisticated movies. Green Book is better than the messy Bohemian Rhapsody, but this safe, glossy picture should not be the standard by which 2018’s movies are forever judged. That it beat out at least four superior movies is the biggest bone-headed move the Oscars have made since Crash beat Brokeback Mountain. And Crash is better than Green Book.
Look, it’s not that Green Book is without merit. The acting is utterly stunning; Viggo Mortensen disappears into his role; you’ll have a hard time believing it’s Aragorn folding that large pizza in half and eating it like a taco. The direction, editing, and camerawork are fine. The movie’s heart is in the right place; its portrayal of two men reaching across the boundaries of class and race echoes in today’s racially and economically divided world.
Still, when you see a movie called Green Book, you expect the plot to hinge on the titular tome. You might expect a bit of historical gravitas as the film represents the segregated American south, but that landscape is mostly represented by a couple of bars and country clubs—white supremacist landscapes that mostly elide any substantive black presence. You might think the plot and character arcs will develop alongside some perspective on the guidebook that allowed African-Americans of the day to find places that would serve them, but you would be wrong. Though the green book makes an appearance or two, and Ali’s character, Dr. Shirley, stays in a couple of black hotels, the movie is most interested in the evolution of the friendship between its two lead characters.
That might be all well and good, except that the movie mostly wastes Ali’s and Mortensen’s performances as it delves into the realm of the Buddy Comedy. In one sense, Green Book is Lethal Weapon without the guns, 48 Hours without the laughs, Look Who’s Coming to Dinner without the romance, In the Heat of the Night without the unflinching drama of the collision between diversity and racism. As We All Learn from Each Other, it often feels like a clumsy first-year screenwriter is bludgeoning us about the head with the Hammer of Theme.
Moreover, Green Book evokes a lot of big ideas without really exploring any of them—the seductions and problems of Shirley’s comparative privilege; Tony Lip’s virulent racism (remember when he tries to throw away his glasses after black men drink from them?), which seems to turn, without much catalyst, into bald admiration; how white America co-opts not only black art but also black artists, turning Shirley into a hired entertainer whose value diminishes the moment he stops playing. And what about that final scene in Tony’s house? Do Tony’s racist friends and relatives really accept Shirley’s just presence because Tony tells them to? Are things that simple?
I have said elsewhere that Green Book may be the only film I’ve ever seen that employs both the Magical Negro and the White Savior stereotypes. It turns complex, layered people and a complicated historical situation into a sugary confection—so pretty to look at, so empty of substance, fit only to ruin a better meal. In passing over so many other, better films, the Academy has rewarded competence at the expense of artistry.
It was a sad way to end a potentially game-changing night.
Brett Riley is the Pushcart-nominated author of The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light (Ink Brush Press) and the feature-length screenplay Candy’s First Kiss, which won or placed in five contests. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Solstice, Folio, The Wisconsin Review, Red Rock Review, The Evansville Review, and many others. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @brettwrites.