A Winner Driven by Fear
“What has happened in the world, that normal now passes as excellence? When did we lower our standards?” – “Widows” (2018), Steve McQueen
I have followed the Academy Awards for the better part of two decades now, and in that time, my view of the Academy and what their Awards mean to me has changed dramatically. When I was first starting off my career as a Cinephile, I thought that the Academy’s word was the golden standard. If “Crash” was named Best Picture in 2004, then gosh darn it, it was the best movie made that year. As with anything, our opinions change with us; they evolve to fit our ever-growing understanding of the world around us. As I grew older, I came to understand the amount of politics that really play into these awards. While the Oscars will occasionally reward films for advancing the language of cinema, they just as often reward films that make certain stances on the current political climate. It’s not just about the art itself (sadly); it’s about the message the Academy can champion to the public.
So, in acknowledging this new view that politics will invariably take part in the selection of Best Picture, what does that mean the Academy represents? For me, I’ve taken the Academy’s choices for Best Picture as a kind of ‘Heart Monitor for Culture.’ If you keep a finger on the pulse of the Academy, you can often see what was most important during the year the film came out (not always, but frequently). Timely hot social issues will frequently carry weight (right to die- “Million Dollar Baby”), political dramas with allusions to modern times often do very well (“Argo”- mirroring tensions in the middle east), but racism is something that seems to never get old for the Academy (“12 Years a Slave”, “Crash”, “Dances with Wolves”, “Driving Miss Daisy”, “In the Heat of the Night”…). It’s an issue they know they can fall back on time and again because racism is still an important issue today, however, the ways in which these stories are told seem not to evolve with time (“Get Out” and “Blindspotting” are two great exceptions). They’re the same stories- the same bodies- just given different clothing. It’s almost a trick that people seem to be eager to fall into over and over, because it carries an alluring pleasantness to it. A story of redemption is something that always gives people reason to cheer.
So to get to the point, why did “Green Book” win this year, in a year where there were undeniably better films in the best picture category?
Well, lets take a look at the state of Hollywood first, because as we’ve already established, current political climate plays a huge part.
Hollywood is in a state of upheaval. The waves of the #MeToo movement are still lapping up against studio walls today. Last year you could barely go a day without reading an article about some man in Hollywood who was secretly a sex-crazed pervert. At the same time, our country is more divided than it has ever been in my lifetime. Trump, whether you like it or not, has played a huge role in influencing entertainment today. He’s a divisive person who is incredibly outspoken, and when people have a platform to shout back, they will. (Just look at last year’s Best Picture winner,The Shape of Water; it’s a movie that is about learning to love those who look different than you. Do you think Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro played some of those themes of acceptance after Trump’s endless barrage of rhetoric-filled speeches against Mexicans and immigrants during the 2016 election? Probably.) Trump has made a lot of people angry, and in dividing the country he has also made it harder for the people of Hollywood to entertain.
Last year, two years ago, there were more acceptance speeches that had to do with politics. People were angry and wanted to shout back. But now, as the country has grown more divided, I noticed that the politics in this ceremony weren’t nearly as prevalent as years past. Why is that? I think it’s because many people are scared for their careers. Hollywood and the Academy Awards are just like any other businesses. You need to make money in order to keep that business running, and in an era so divided, making money is hindered if you’re an offensive voice to half the country.
So, lets breakdown the Best Picture Nominees this year: “Green Book”, “Black Panther”, “BlacKkKlansman”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “The Favourite”, “Roma”, “A Star is Born”, and “Vice”. I bet we can pinpoint why each film was nominated and why “Green Book” won in the long run.
1. “Black Panther”- Nominate “Black Panther” and you hope to draw in the Marvel crowd. Superhero fans have been in uproar since The Dark Knight wasn’t nominated, so this is essentially the Academy sating them. Plus, it is a cultural phenomenon. As far as a film goes, this movie is fine, but there was little chance this would win. It’s pretty much a publicity stunt.
2. “BlacKkKlansman”- I’m not a huge fan of Spike Lee, mostly because of his ‘I deserve this award’ attitude. I will admit that “BlacKkKlansman” was better than most of his recent work, but at the same time, Lee is just as divisive as Trump in some ways. Lee is so outspoken and so angry that I often find myself just tuning him out entirely. In my “BlacKkKlansman” review I equated Lee to Malcolm X and other filmmakers like Berry Jenkins and Steve McQueen to Martin Luther King Jr. Both preach similar messages, but one is infused with hate, while the other with love. Lee won his Oscar for best-adapted screenplay, and I honestly think that was just to shut him up. This film is about as heavy-handed as can be. If this film won best picture it would be a HUGE middle finger to Trump and those who lean towards the right. The Academy just wasn’t trying to make a point this year.
3. “Bohemian Rhapsody”- A fun flick. Strange that it’s nominated. I really didn’t think this ever had a shot at anything but Best Actor (which it won and then surprised me by winning a few others as well). There’s very little drama that happens in this movie; it’s essentially a concert film. Again, this was a big blockbuster- it feels like more of a publicity stunt to draw viewers than anything.
4. “The Favourite”- A genuinely great film. Honestly, I think the problem with this is the fact that it focuses on a lesbian love affair, the themes are vindictive and venomous, and the ending isn’t exactly happy. As a movie, it’s a masterpiece. But as a statement that Hollywood is trying to send in an already depressing year, what does it say? Nothing, really. And in a year that cares more about saving face than championing art, this film sadly fell by the wayside.
5. “Roma”- Probably the best film of the year. The problem is this film is slow and quiet. It’s a beautiful work of art, but it also focuses primarily on a family in Mexico. The film’s hope for best picture died as Trump supporters shout: “Build the wall! Build the wall!” Thankfully, the academy did reward Cuaron for directing and cinematography.
6. “A Star is Born”- This was a really good movie, again, I was a bit surprised that it was nominated for so much, but this is one of those films where I don’t have a problem that it was shown so much love. There isn’t really a message the academy can send with this film though, is there?
7. “Vice”- The one Best Picture nominee I haven’t seen. This is a very political piece though, and it also divided critics and its accuracy was called into question. The only real buzz I heard about this was that Christian Bale might win best actor (he lost to Malick), but after he thanked Satan for inspiration on how to play Dick Chaney during his Golden Globe acceptance speech, I feel like he probably forfeited any chance of taking home an Oscar.
8. “Green Book”- At last we come to the winner. Looking back on these other entries, was there really a clear frontrunner? No, not really. So why give “Green Book” the Oscar? It’s pretty inoffensive, there are some good character moments, and it sends a statement that almost everyone can agree on: racism is bad. It’s not a new theme, but it’s tried and true.
The Academy this year was more concerned with not causing waves than it was with rewarding something that actually deserved it. “Green Book” is a movie that everyone could enjoy, but probably no one will love. It is the most vanilla choice the Academy could’ve made, but it makes sense if you think about it:
The world is divided and that division breeds fear. People are stuck wishing for simpler times and simpler stories. We’re tired of division; we want unification.
This simple story provides an escape from the reality of the real world and allows us to believe that two good people working together might possibly be enough to heal the whole country. It’s a fantasy that Americans seem eager to escape to, but one that isn’t incredibly realistic. Fear was the driving force behind this movie. People were afraid to make a statement, they were afraid of causing more division, they were afraid of offending someone, and “Green Book” is the least offensive film of the year. “Green Book” is a way for the Academy to sit this year out, politics-wise. None of us know what the next year holds, none of us knows where the political climate will head in 2020, but tensions are high, and people seem to be waiting on bated breath.
“Green Book” might not be the best picture of the year as far furthering the language of cinema, but as a “Heart Monitor for Culture,” I think this film nailed it. In times of hardship, people will inevitably gravitate towards feel-good stories.
Am I happy about the overall outcome? Not really, but there’s nothing I can do but wait till next year.
Green Book: A Winner Driven by Fear written by: