Every year it is the same story: the Academy comes so close to catching up with the rest of the film world, only to award the Oscar for Best Picture to the most middling of the bunch.
Many cinephiles the world over were likely scratching their heads, or rolling their eyes, or perhaps throwing something at the television, when Julia Roberts called out Green Book’s name, a film the LA Times later dubbed “the worst Best Picture winner since ‘Crash’”.
The film is the story of an unlikely friendship between musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his driver Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), as they tour America’s South in the 1960s. It sits in a long line of Hollywood films that feature a white protagonist “saving” the black character, who is rendered passive in the process.
BlacKkKlansman director Spike Lee was apparently so incensed by the Best Picture announcement that he stormed to the back of the theatre only to be ushered back into his seat. He and director Jordan Peele reportedly did not clap the winners. Later, with a drink in hand, Lee told the press room that the “ref made a bad call”.
That a film with a white saviour narrative won the big prize shouldn’t really be much of a shock though.
The Academy Awards have battled with a number of controversies over the last few years, from #Oscarssowhite to La La Land being mistakenly read out as the winner of Best Picture in 2017 over Moonlight. An LA Times report in 2016 identified 91% of Oscar voters as white and 76% male.
It’s clear that the Academy needs to continue to up its game in diversifying the voting demographic.
The role of campaigning, and studios selecting which films to push, also stops the awards from genuinely reflecting the best works. Other films, notably by women directors, were shut out this year. Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here and Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me are just two that deserved wider recognition.
The big takeaway message from this year’s ceremony, if it wasn’t clear already, is that we shouldn’t look to the Academy for any enlightened thinking.
A sea of safeness and whiteness
The optics of the Green Book team accepting their award could not have been more glaring. A collection of predominantly white men (and Mahershala Ali and Octavia Spencer to the side) pronounced that the film, to paraphrase, is about love and loving each other despite our differences and finding out that we are the same people.
For a film that is meant to be about race relations in America, all we got from the speech was a sea of safeness and whiteness.
In 2010, the Academy expanded the Best Picture category to up to ten nominees. This change also saw the introduction of preferential voting. All voting members rank the year’s nominees from first through to eighth. If the film with the most first place votes doesn’t break 50%, then the film with the lowest first place votes is eliminated and its votes redistributed according to preferences.
This will then occur with the next lowest ranking film until a film cracks the 50% margin. As such, second and third place votes begin to count just as much as first place votes.
It also creates an interesting divide between critics and much of the film-going public and the Academy voters. Leading up to the awards, critical consensus saw Roma as the more agreeable choice, with Green Book being the divisive nominee. Turns out, this perspective was reversed in the world of the Academy and Green Book was deemed the most agreeable.
A year of back peddling
The awards this year were contentious before the ceremony even began. Kevin Hart’s previous homophobic remarks resulted in him stepping down. Four awards – cinematography, film editing, makeup/hairstyling, and live-action short – were going to be cut from the live broadcast. The Oscars also initially snubbed nominated songs from the show, which is not a new occurrence .
The Academy then did a lot of back peddling. There was no main host, all awards were included in the live broadcast and four of the nominated songs were performed live, with the omission of All the Stars by Kendrick Lamar and SZA from Black Panther due to “logistics and timing”. The Academy is really bad at reading the room until it’s too late.
John Ottman, accepting the award for Best Editing of Bohemian Rhapsody, said the production was a labour of love with everyone bonding together. This perspective was an odd contrast to recent statements made by Rami Malek, in which he said that working with the film’s sometime director Bryan Singer “was not pleasant”.
In his acceptance speech for Best Actor, Malek also identified Bohemian Rhapsody as being about an unapologetically gay immigrant, yet it has been reported that Mercury was bisexual. If only the film could have been celebratory of Mercury’s sexuality. Still, the homophobic moralising will most likely be overshadowed by Green Book’s win.
One other glaring lowlight of the show was Broadway actress Carol Channing being omitted from the In Memoriam section. While there are eyebrow raising omissions every year, to not include Channing, who was show business personified, is sad indeed.
In the sea of disappointment, there were several delightful moments. The choices of presenters seemed laughably odd. Serena Williams introducing A Star is Born and Queen Latifah introducing The Favourite were interesting to say the least. Barbra Streisand introduced BlacKkKlansman because apparently she and Spike Lee both grew up in Brooklyn.
Lee, who won an honorary Oscar in 2016, won this year for Best Adapted Screenplay. The reception the film received was notably more rapturous than the one given to Green Book for Best Original Screenplay. The difference was palpable. Lee noted that February was Black History Month in the US:
1619, 2019. 400 years. 400 years our ancestors were stolen from mother Africa and brought to Jamestown, Virginia enslaved. Our ancestors worked the land, from can’t see at morning to can’t see at night.
The ceremony did see a significant number of women artists of colour taking to the stage to collect awards, from Hannah Beachler, production designer for Black Panther, to Regina King winning for her role in If Beale Street Could Talk.
Other highlights included Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s performance of the Best Original Song, Shallow, which evoked old school Hollywood glamour. The chemistry between the two is palpable.
Joyous upsets included Olivia Colman winning Best Actress over the hot favourite Glenn Close, who was nominated for her seventh time. Colman gave a scattered and heartwarming speech which won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
The ceremony tried to pitch itself as being liberal, with several mentions of metaphorically tearing down walls. It’s clear though, that in Hollywood, this will always happen on the power players’ terms. The Academy Awards will never be as progressive as we want them to be. If that’s what you are looking for, then tune into the Indie Spirit awards.
In the end, final Oscars presenter Julia Roberts was drowned out by music emanating from the orchestra in the pit as she closed the show. Even the producers were done. Let’s just remember the select moments of joy and forget the rest ever happened.