Oscars 2019: The biggest controversies surrounding this year's Best Picture nominees

Academy's eight selections have all encountered some degree of criticism, of which sexual harassment allegations against Bohemian Rhapsody director Bryan Singer is most serious

Joe Sommerlad
Sunday 24 February 2019 12:22
Oscars 2019: Nominations for Best Picture

This year’s Academy Awards had already attracted more than the usual degree of scandal before its nominations were even announced.

Kevin Hart was unveiled as host, only to then find himself hurriedly dropped when old tweets resurfaced in which he expressed homophobic sentiments, matters only made worse when chat show star Ellen DeGeneres attempted to intervene on the comedian’s behalf.

The Oscars resolved that issue by pressing on without a compere for the first time since 1989, but the eight Best Picture nominees themselves have all attracted controversy since their release, with some charges more serious than others.

Black Panther

Marvel’s Afrofuturist superhero blockbuster was the event movie of last year, a runaway hit at the box office led by a predominantly black cast that proved the studio’s extended universe could offer a satisfying villain after all.

The film has arguably been overhyped, not deviating dramatically from genre formula, following some fairly routine narrative beats and relying heavily on glossy CGI to realise its fictional location Wakanda.

Fans of the movie were suspicious when the Academy announced last summer that this year’s ceremony would include a Best Popular Film category for the first time, speculating it was being introduced to sideline multiplex fare like Black Panther in favour of the same old treadmill of prestige biopics and issue dramas.

The idea was duly scrapped a month later due to the negative response and Ryan Coogler’s film has its Best Picture nomination after all.


Spike Lee recently added his signature to an open letter denouncing the Academy for its decision to hand out four technical awards during commercial breaks at this year’s ceremony, joining Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and almost 100 others in accusing the organisers of “relegating essential cinematic crafts to lesser status”.

Lee has been nominated for five competitive Academy Awards and never won, but was famously hailed by presenter Kim Basinger in 1990 when she broke with protocol to declare his film Do the Right Thing should have been nominated for Best Picture.

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BlacKkKlansman, based on a true story, has been well-received but was arguably sold disingenuously to moviegoers on the basis of its premise: a black FBI agent infiltrates the KKK.

John David Washington’s Ron Stallworth does do so, but only over the telephone, having to send white agent Philip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to Klan meetings in his stead.

As a Jew, Zimmerman still places himself in real danger from white supremacist thugs but the truth hardly makes for the outrageous caper the film’s marketing team had led audiences to expect.

Boots Riley, director of last year’s wild satire Sorry to Bother You, also attacked the film on Twitter last August, posting a two-page essay about its liberties with the truth.

“For Spike to come out with a movie where story points are fabricated in order to make a black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism is really disappointing, to put it very mildly,” he wrote.

Bohemian Rhapsody

The film that has attracted the most serious criticism is this Queen biopic, which endured a protracted 10-year production, losing its original lead actor Sacha Baron Cohen and seeing its original director Bryan Singer fired well into shooting.

When it arrived in cinemas in late October, it was panned by critics but loved by audiences, particularly thanks to Rami Malek’s toothy performance as the band’s charismatic frontman Freddie Mercury. By January, it had built up enough goodwill to walk off with Best Film at the Golden Globes.

It was then that The Atlantic published a long article listing allegations of historic sexual harassment against Singer.

After nominating Bohemian Rhapsody for seven Baftas, the British Academy issued a statement distancing itself from Singer as a result of the report. When Malek picked up Best Actor at the subsequent ceremony, he pointedly thanked his stand-in director, Dexter Fletcher, without mentioning Singer.

The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos’s costume drama recounting the life of Queen Anne has attracted near universal acclaim, not least due to its trio of superb central performances from Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone.

Where the film has attracted criticism is among historians, who take umbrage at The Favourite's preference of whimsy over strict adherence to the truth.

The screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara entirely omits Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark, and its contention that the monarch had sexual affairs with the Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Hill is largely based on unfounded speculation.

Green Book

Peter Farrelly’s Green Book has its fans – Steven Spielberg called it “the best buddy comedy since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – but it has also been mocked for its simplistic treatment of race relations, and as a film written and directed by white men that represents little advance on Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

The film tells the story of African-American jazz pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his concert tour through the segregated Deep South in 1962, depicting a blossoming friendship between the musician and his Italian-American driver Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen).

The project has attracted a number of controversies, with its director, best known for “gross-out comedies” in the 1990s, forced to apologise for a story alleging he once habitually flashed his genitals at his cast and crew as a prank. Writer Nick Vallelonga, son of the real-life Tony, was likewise criticised for an Islamophobic tweet, as was Mortensen for using the N-word during a Q&A in Los Angeles.

Since the film’s debut in the US, Dr Shirley's brother Maurice and nephew Edwin Shirley III have claimed that nobody from the family was consulted during the project’s development and branded Green Book “a symphony of lies”. Ali himself called them to apologise for the oversight, according to NPR.


Like The Favourite, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma has been praised generously across the board. Its inclusion in the Best Picture category is odd, however, given that the entire film is in Spanish and Mixtec, which ordinarily would see it consigned solely to the Best Foreign Language category.

If Cuaron’s Mexican drama can be nominated for the top prize, why not Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters or Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War?

The fact that Roma only received a limited theatrical run before arriving on Netflix is also a point of contention. The traditional film establishment remains highly suspicious of the streaming giant, which was forced to pull out of the Cannes Film Festival last year after organisers insisted works showing must be distributed in French cinemas. Its logo had previously been booed on the Riviera as a matter of custom.

Roma Offical Trailer 2

Steven Spielberg had been even more explicit in speaking out against Netflix, arguing last March: “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie.”

“You certainly, if it’s a good show, deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar. I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theatres for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”

A Star is Born

Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, in which he co-stars with Lady Gaga, has proven a huge hit with audiences and attracted almost as much critical adulation as The Favourite and Roma.

The production is the third remake of a property first filmed by William Wellman in 1937 with Frederic March and Janet Gaynor but is such an enduring Hollywood tale it has succeeded in finding a new audience in the 21st century with only superficial modifications, just as it did in 1954 and 1976.

A star is born - Trailer

The latest telling of A Star is Born has received a mixed response regarding its presentation of addiction and mental health, with some cautioning that its indulgence of the old tragic myth of the tortured male artist driven to self-destruction by his demons could influence vulnerable viewers.

Cooper’s alcoholic country singer Jackson Maine hangs himself in a distressing scene that prompted New Zealand to add an additional warning ahead of screenings after victim support organisations said two teenage audience members had been “severely triggered” by watching it.


Just a year after audiences dutifully sat through Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, in which an acclaimed actor donned a fat suit to play a powerful politician, here we are again.

To be fair, Christian Bale is impressive as George W Bush’s vice president Dick Cheney, even if Adam McKay’s laboured, lecturing style, aping Michael Winterbottom’s freewheeling 24 Hour Party People (2002), has begun to grate after The Big Short (2015).

The Welsh actor jokingly thanked “Satan” for the inspiration when he picked up the Best Actor Golden Globe, drawing an angry response from Cheney’s daughter Liz on Twitter.

Posting an Independent article from 2008 reporting on Bale’s arrest for an alleged assault on his mother and sister in a London hotel room, Liz Cheney wrote: “Satan probably inspired him to do this, too.” Bale was questioned by the Metropolitan Police regarding the incident before being released without charge.

The tweet provoked a deluge of hostile responses, the majority taking her father to task over the Iraq War, although others noted that, during her own run for the Senate in 2014, Liz Cheney had spoken out against gay marriage despite her own sister Mary having come out.

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