I love the Oscars. I know that as time goes on that becomes less and less of a cool thing for a cinephile to say, but something about the glamour, the prestige and the all-encompassing hype speaks to me on a very primal level. When I was in high school, a friend described Oscar season as “the closest thing Jeremiah gets to March Madness,” and truer words may have never been spoken. Months before the nominations are even announced, I’ve immersed myself in odds and rankings and potential dark horses. I look back through past winners to try and see patterns, and when the nominations are released, I see anything I’ve missed. I live and breathe this stuff until the last statue has been walked off stage and the credits roll on another overlong ceremony.
What I’m trying to say is: The Oscars are my shit.
And last Sunday they gave their top award to “Green Book.”
“Green Book.” The movie where Viggo Mortensen – a man who, in “Return of the King,” redefined the word “regality” – spends two hours doing a second-rate Mario impression. The movie so low on laughs, emotion or any type of mental stimulation that, in a case of accidental brilliance, it accurately captures the feeling of being trapped in a car on an endless road trip. The answer to the question “What would happen if ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ hadn’t had the common courtesy to be released in 1989?” That movie. Freakin’ “Green Book.”
Granted, it’s been a weird year for the Oscars even before this. Over the summer, they tried to add a “Best Popular Film” category in a move seemingly designed to insult anyone who’s ever worked on a movie, implying that blockbusters couldn’t be true films and smaller movies couldn’t be truly popular. It was so instantly and universally criticized as the shameless attempt to boost ratings that, about a month later, the Academy released a statement that basically read, “Um…psych?”
After the nominations came out, Variety reported that only the two frontrunners for Best Original Song, “All the Stars” and “Shallow,” would be performed at the show, in essence giving both middle fingers to the other nominees and making it clear just how little they valued their contributions. After another round of criticism, the Academy once again reversed their decision, but just in case you thought they’d finally learned the lesson to appreciate their members, they announced less than two weeks later that the awards for Best Live Action Short, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing would not be televised, because what movie ever needed cinematography and editing besides every movie ever made?
With all this in mind, maybe “Green Book” was the perfect winner to cap off a year that’s tested even my love for Hollywood’s biggest night. If we acknowledge this as just the latest in a long line of dumbass decisions they’ve made, then they’ve been giving “Green Book” Best Picture spiritually if not physically for months. Maybe we should have been prepared, yet when Julia Roberts called the whitest group of men I’ve seen outside of a VanderHelm family reunion up on to that stage to accept the most prestigious award in cinema for a race relations movie so simple that it makes “The Upside” look like a doctoral thesis, I still felt viscerally repulsed.
I’m not here to argue that “Green Book” is a bad movie, even though it is; my fellow film beat writer, Julianna Morano, has written two excellent pieces to that effect already. I’m not even really here to argue the merits or lack thereof of “Green Book”’s commentary on race, because I simply don’t feel qualified to do so. Rather, I’d just like to unpack why “Green Book” in particular was the exact wrong choice for 2019’s Best Picture in particular. We’ve heard it said that no film is apolitical. Even if it doesn’t actively take a political stance, it is shaped by the culture of the time of its release, therefore providing a reflection – active or passive – on American societal values. The Academy Award for Best Picture is meant not only to honor the best film released in a given year; it itself is also a political statement. Which movie best reflects how we consider ourselves now? What about how we want future generations of cinephiles to consider us? Giving a film Best Picture is to essentially put that film in a time capsule. Future generations are going to watch it, and they are going to judge us by what they see.
And this year, the Academy chose “Green Book” as a reflection of America circa 2019. In a time where Donald Trump – a man who on a good day dog whistles to racists and on a bad day is actively racist himself – occupies the Oval Office, “Green Book.” Even after its writer and producer, Nick Vallelonga (“Choker”) was found to have retweeted Trump’s false allegations that Muslims in New Jersey cheered on 9/11 before producing a movie in which arguably America’s most prominent Muslim actor has to teach basic human decency to a racist white guy, “Green Book.” After Don Shirley’s family came out in open protest against the film, “Green Book.”
This is the sort of movie you choose to reward if you believe you live in a post-racial society, but we don’t, and it is dangerous to believe that we do. If we think, in 2019, that racism is something that can be cured by simply spending time with someone of another race and depending on their longsuffering patience for our oh-so-adorable racial faux pas without any real soul-searching, then we oversimplify an arena in which lives are at stake. The Oscars are the most esteemed award for filmmaking in the world; the Academy needs to understand this, own it and be better.