Despite the ceremony being a bore and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences proving that it can only trip when it attempts to sprint, the actual winners of the 91st Academy Awards were inspired choices. At least, for most of Sunday night’s ceremony.
Spike Lee finally took home an Oscar after too many years out in the cold. The brilliant Olivia Colman delivered a delightfully shocking upset to Glenn Close. Alfonso Cuaron earned the best director statue for his work on the unparalleled Roma. Regina King was honoured for a performance that nearly slipped under the radar until a surprising tide of end-of-year love swerved her way. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper took solace in nabbing at least one award for A Star Is Born, and essentially won the evening by having sweaty, Steadicam-captured duet-sex on-stage.
But then, at the very end, when it appeared that Julia Roberts would announce Roma as being the night’s ultimate champion, a shocking and dispiriting twist unfolded: The best picture of 2018, the year of not only Cuaron’s black-and-white Spanish-langauge film but so many other immensely challenging and artistically boundary-pushing features, would go to Green Book. As in, the race-relations drama that is mostly about a white man’s journey toward tolerance. As in, the film so lightweight in its drama and character that it could have been made as a Hallmark movie and few would have elevated it. As in, the film that plays Italian-American stereotypes almost, or maybe even worse, than Canada’s notorious Little Italy. As in, the Driving Miss Daisy of today. As in, the Crash of today. As in, the most puzzling and dispiriting choice the Academy could have selected this year (well, except for Bohemian Rhapsody; but at least that would have been fun to mock, whereas this is just depressing).
It could be argued that Green Book is the obvious choice because it’s a crowd-pleaser. And with the Academy using a preferential-ballot voting system, it may very well be that a good portion of members didn’t think Green Book was the best movie of the year, but the second- or third-best. But as I noted when the film premiered at TIFF this past September, there is pleasing the crowd, and there is patronizing them. Green Book was conceived by a trio of white guys – surely all sympathetic to the realities of the film’s Jim Crow era and America today. Yet, they decided to engineer a story not around the racist reality that African-American men and women face, but on one white man’s slow-step journey away from casual racism toward a slightly more tolerant frame of mind. It’s Racism for Dummies, which makes sense given that it was directed by Dumb and Dumber’s Peter Farrelly.
There are a few cultural hints as to why Green Book triumphed where Roma and the other contenders failed, all depressing in nature. First, it proves that Academy members are by and large not especially learned or curious cinephiles, if they were so easily seduced by the paint-by-numbers narrative and lazy aesthetics of Green Book. Second, it appears that there is still confusion over assuaging liberal guilt with honouring work that actually says something about race in America. But Green Book’s triumph could also be seen in a more business-centric perspective: as an industry-wide referendum on Netflix.
Cuaron’s black-and-white Roma was the streaming giant’s first real best picture bet – the company reportedly spent an unprecedented amount on its awards-circuit chances – and if it ended up taking home the best picture prize, the economics of Hollywood would shift dramatically. After all, Netflix operates on a business model that is in direct confrontation with the theatrical market that the motion-picture industry was built upon. If the Oscar gates were opened for Roma, it would mark, if not the kill shot, certainly a flesh wound to the industry’s traditional studio system. Netflix can now count a best director award on its shelf, although the real prize remains elusive.
The true wake-up call of Green Book’s win, although, is more thuddingly obvious: that the Academy Awards cannot be trusted with history. The Oscars can nail it (The Godfather, The Apartment, No Country for Old Men) but just as often whiff it completely (the aforementioned Crash, The Artist, Braveheart). It is easy, and fun, to ascribe almighty powers to the Academy Awards, but it is best to think of the Oscars as capturing a moment in cultural group-think and the industry politics of the day.
There are slim odds that critics and audiences will be fondly remembering Green Book in two decades’ time. But there is every chance that we’ll still be debating why, and how, it exactly triumphed.