If BlacKkKlansman is Hollywood as it wants to see itself, Green Book is Hollywood as it really is. Victory for the white-made race relations comedy at last night’s Oscars makes sense less artistically than as a spiteful reality check. Never mind its scant artistry and relentless, almost uncanny mediocrity.
Against favourites Roma and Bohemian Rhapsody, its win was a bizarre, upsetting end to an evening that had seemed, for the most part, ideologically “right on”. In fact, it was just the final joker in the pack of an Oscars season that saw the Academy in soul-searching mode: a season in which its organising body first proposed then withdrew a best popular film category; cancelled plans to award four technical categories during ad breaks; and rescinded its invitation to sometime homophobe Kevin Hart to host, leaving its presenter slot empty (an unanticipated blessing).
The crisis? Hollywood no longer knows whom it wants to please.
Tinseltown has been plagued in recent years by accusations of racism, sexism and homophobia, and has bristled at the idea that it may not be sufficiently nice to the Mexicans who look after its children and cater its parties. Recent changes to the membership of the Academy have gone a long way to altering some of those perceptions (though not, perhaps, the realities behind them), and last night’s presenters – and winners – were, accordingly, a diverse line-up.
Women spoke in nearly half the acceptance speeches. According to The New York Times, Black Panther's Hannah Beachler and Ruth E. Carter were the first black women to win any Oscar outside the acting categories since 1984. For the fifth time in six years, a Mexican (Alfonso Cuarón) won Best Director. Three of the four acting awards went to performers playing LGBTQ characters. Even the makers of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse spoke of their film in terms of representation and what it means to feel “powerful and seen”.
But while this exuberant display will have delighted viewers hoping to see Hollywood as Hollywood wants to see itself — as a progressive force for good in America — many of its gestures were empty or half-baked.
Yes, there were many female winners, but not a single woman was nominated for Best Director. Though it could be said that many of the nominated actors played roles that celebrated diversity, they also played out that oldest Hollywood cliché that this must come with noble suffering, whether it’s the gay man dying of AIDS, the economically oppressed housekeeper, the sidelined woman, or the victims of racism and anti-Semitism. And movies like If Beale Street Could Talk and Roma come straight from a tradition of Academy-style social critique: with their easy targets and glittering aesthetics, they let audiences feel good about themselves without threatening the status quo.
By comparison, BlacKkKlansman, a more radical and substantial work, was largely shut out, left with a single Oscar for Adapted Screenplay. Its writer-director, Spike Lee, was the lone voice making a call to arms for 2020 just as his film was the only big gun to explicitly tackle the current political crisis in the US.
Green Book, the most half-baked of all, is closer not just to Hollywood as it really is, but perhaps to America as it is now. Telling the true-ish story of a white driver’s relationship with his employer, a black musician, on a tour of the Deep South in 1962, it’s sentimental, predictable hokum played for easy laughs and easy lessons. As director Peter Farrelly said, “It’s about loving each other despite our differences.”
And maybe this is where the country's at. Taken on average, perhaps America is less a ferocious BlacKkKlansman of a place than it is a largely well-meaning, somewhat un-woke Green Book sort of a place. A place peopled by millions of people who, like Viggo Mortensen in the film, know that life gets "complicated" but are content to let that remain a euphemism. Who are happy to have their hearts warmed by a story of racial (so-called) tolerance.
Perhaps these are the tens of millions of Oscar viewers who have switched off in the last 20 years anyway, in which case the effort was made in vain. But in recognising Green Book, the Academy acknowledged its own ambivalence. A Freudian slip, perhaps, but all the more honest for it.
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