As a film enthusiast, award season is hell for me. During the five-month period from October to February, the various awards shows—the Golden Globes, the Emmys, the Oscars—become an obnoxious parade of celebrity self-flagellation. But with Sunday’s Academy Awards, we’re now in the stage in which we process and debate the best and worst decisions of the night. The best was clearly that the ceremony didn’t have a host. The worst might have been just as clear: Green Book winning Best Picture.
I’m not unique in my dismay. Legendary director Spike Lee, who won his first competitive Oscar this year for his BlacKkKlansmen screenplay, was visibly angry that Green Book won. Why? On the surface, Green Book is a perfectly serviceable, albeit predictable, film about a black pianist’s summer excursion down south with his white driver. But it is just another variation of a tired and problematic old narrative—that of the white savior.
Because Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a bouncer, he’s hired by the more refined Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali. Shirley squires him around the Jim Crow South as the two men become friends. They talk and travel, getting into occasional misadventures. The deeper problem, however, requires a closer look at what this story signifies. Green Book tells us that racism is primarily a “problem” of individual prejudice rather than systemic practice. Therefore, it falls on a messianic white guy to swoop in, save the day, and change hearts and minds.
Because this narrative is already so deeply embedded in the American cultural fabric, viewers come to the film with this concept already planted in their brains. Tony, who gets Don out of multiple jams, is automatically the “white savior.” That said, there is a perfectly legitimate reading of the film that discredits this analysis: over the course of the story, it is Tony who changes the most; he learns to respect Don, recognizing his talent and dignity.
Sounds nice, right? Sure, but Green Book is not a groundbreaking racial film. Another nomination for Best Picture was precisely that: BlacKkKlansman.
Lee’s 2018 film tells the true story of the Denver police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who, in the early 1970s, infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan and sends in a white, but secretly Jewish, colleague (Adam Driver) to present his seemingly Aryan bona fides and then penetrate deeply into the hate group’s inner workings.
Had this film won Best Picture, it would have shown the world that Hollywood finally gets it. What’s more, that longstanding cinematic outsider, Spike Lee, who clings to the gritty streets of New York instead of Los Angeles, would finally be accepted into the Hollywood community.
Still, BlacKkKlansman underscores the inherent weakness of Lee’s most recent films, or as he calls them, joints: he’s an over-the-top agitprop filmmaker. If you’re too obtuse to understand that racism is wrong, Lee includes footage at the end of his film showing the riots in Charlottesville. He leaves no room for subtlety.
It all sounds wonderfully transgressive: a black cop infiltrating the Klan with the help of a Jew. But Lee actually glides over something even more sinister. Ron Stallworth was one of hundreds of black police officers who participated in one of the most notorious FBI projects in American history: COINTELPRO, a series of illegal, dirty operations that J. Edgar Hoover ordered on Americans whose political opinions he deemed subversive. Black student unions, which Stallworth joins in the film, were the kind of organizations the FBI monitored closely to suppress “black power activism.”
My take? Roma was the best film this the year. It won the Oscar for Best Direction and Best Foreign Language Film. Shot in luminous black and white, it told the story of director Alfonso Cuaron’s “second mother,” an indigenous Mexican woman who was his nanny. It ultimately didn’t win Best Picture, but it got more accolades and recognition than a film like it could have in years prior. Produced by Netflix, where is has been live-streaming, one Academy voter said that it was an “expensive home movie.” Hard to imagine, then, the film really taking home the grand prize.
I had some other likes and dislikes on Sunday night. But I’m now mostly happy for one thing: it’s over.