What we reward when we reward ‘Green Book’

Monday, February 4, 2019 - 2:38pm

NOSELL

Universal Pictures

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences says to a movie, “You are the best picture of the year,” what are they really indicating?

The Academy itself explains, “We recognize and uphold excellence in the motion picture arts and sciences, inspire imagination, and connect the world through the medium of motion pictures.” This lofty mission statement is worth unpacking, and, with the Academy Awards coming up this month, worth testing. Controversial Best Picture nominee “Green Book” gives a perfect occasion for such a test.

In the context of Best Picture nominations, recognizing and upholding “excellence,” implies that the Academy just wants to honor the most remarkable film of the year. But this is an annual award, so there is no such thing as an isolated incident in a yearly contest. By design, the Academy is always in the process of scribing and publicizing its own history. So this year’s nominations do more than tell us that each movie is one we should have seen this year or that it stands out at a particular moment in time. With the force of history behind the nominations, the Academy indicates to us: This is a movie that tells you something you need to hear, and you probably have not heard it before — at the very least, you’ve never heard it in such articulate terms.

“Green Book” wants to be just that: a unique, articulate entry into the canon of Best Picture nominees. It wants to be thought of as progressive, as a story which rewrites the long, disturbing history of race relations in American history.

But it is none of these things.

It is the story of a historically unlikely friendship that emerges in the 1960s between a Black pianist and his white driver and bodyguard as they venture into the Deep South. The two men learn from each other, but consider what audience members learn from their dynamic: That white men will respond to the realities of racism by fighting for rather than with Black men. In other words, that even in supposed narratives of resistance to racism, white men will be billed lead actor and Black men will remain members of the secondary, supporting cast. At least, this is how “Green Book” understood it; Viggo Mortensen (“Eastern Promises”) is the lead to Mahershala Ali’s (“Moonlight”) supporting role.

Beyond what the film tells us by itself, what are we saying when we reward it? What do we reward when we reward “Green Book"?

We saw a preview of the answer at the Golden Globes, where “Green Book” took home Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Particularly, we watched “Green Book” screenwriter Nick Vallelonga take the stage for the second time (after winning Best Screenplay for the same film). Nick Vallelonga, one of multiple filmmakers involved with “Green Book,” unsurprisingly attracted advancing problematic rhetoric outside of the film. Though he has since deleted the tweet and apologized, Vallelonga retweeted President Trump’s claim that he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers on Sep. 11, 2001. In some ways, “Green Book” is just like Vallelonga’s Twitter scandal: a statement that recirculates sentiments adverse to social progress in the United States. The difference is that Vallelonga was pressured to apologize for the damage his Twitter post did. Despite its problematic content, award shows continue to commend him for “Green Book.”

If we reward “Green Book” a Best Picture prize for the second time, we continue to curb momentum. Slow down. Pipe down. Back down. It tells white people there is no need to use their racial privilege to work against the system of privilege itself; rather, it is enough to reconsider prejudices and wage quiet, halfhearted resistance. It tells Black people it is their job to teach white people about racism — but that white people will remain the protagonists, the main characters, the saviors in any subsequent struggle for equality. We gesture toward the myth of a post-racial America instead of confronting the continued, urgent realities of racism.

Wanting to be progressive isn’t enough. Rewarding fraudulent progressivism is threatening. I hope we set our sights higher.