The Academy’s White Compromise Problem A look back, and at the 2019 Best Picture nominees
The controversy over the unprecedented success that the film Green Book has had over film societies in the US over the past couple of months has set the film world on its heels. Everything from middle-America, smaller groups, national groups, to worldwide (The Golden Globes) has set hardcore cinephiles, professional and amateur film critics alike, and even comic fanboys spinning their heads like Linda Blair in The Exorcist (yes, her spitting out the water like vomit and it being the color green is not lost on me). Usually, a controversy like this is a critical divide between critics and fans; it now seems to have started a critical divide between film critics.
When Green Book won the audience award at TIFF, many praised it as an accomplishment and feather in the cap of director Peter Farrelly for directing a film that lacks the tone of any of his previous envelope-busting comedies (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary and Kingpin). Then, the National Board of Review named it Best Picture, which meant it was troubling, but don’t alert the kids yet. It must be an anomaly in the NBR’s voting (remember Gods & Monsters winning, despite overall pre-determined Saving Private Ryan taking home everything well… until, you know, Harvey Weinstein got involved?).
Then it began to pick up steam, winning several awards groups best nominations and winning multiple awards. Then, the unthinkable happened; the Globe announced a group of nominees that many didn’t expect, and many were left off that was thought to be a sure-fire, can’t miss cutting. However, one thing remained the same: Green Book took home the prize for Best Comedy or Musical Film. Even after the film’s start, Viggo Mortenson dropped the N-word during a post-screening Q&A on November 7th, 2018. Of awards groups, taking a quick look at IMDb, tallying Best Picture nominees for the specific award in their category (says Screenwriters Guild top prizes have to do with screenplays). If the group has an audience award, Green Book has been nominated 34 times for a Best Feature or Picture prize, 21 times Green Book won critics awards for Best Picture, or Festival Award for Best Picture, or audience awards for best feature/picture (it should be noted, 13 of those have to do with the festival, audience award, or winner in a guild where their top prize is not for best film, but for what the guild is associated with).
Then the roof started to cave in. The Shirley family came out against the film, saying the events depicted don’t reflect a friendship they know about. The film is described as a story of an unlikely friendship, which is precisely the point of why this film is being bashed now by critics and film fans alike- it is unlikely it ever happened. The story is from the son of the main protagonist, Tony Vallelonga, so it would be naïve to think the film wouldn’t be seen through the eyes of him, and combined with the fact it doesn’t even appear that the family of Don Shirley was seriously consulted (or their concerns considered for the film). That same son (Nick Vallelonga), who wrote the screenplay, came under fire for controversial tweets to Donald Trump.
Then, there is the use of the actual book in the film. The Negro Motorist Green Book, or more commonly just known as Green Book, was developed by a New York City postal worker named Victor Hugo Green, so the emerging African-American middle class could take their newly-bought automobiles and travel the country when Jim Crow laws were still practiced widely across the South. This was a necessary help for non-white travelers who faced “sundown” hours, where you had to leave the area by nightfall to continue segregating people of color. By the time Jim Crow laws were outlawed in 1964 by the Civil Rights Act, the Green Book slowly disappeared into obscurity; one would think it still might be needed today.
The thing is, I’m not sure if some are dismissing it as not mattering. Still, the actual Green Book never takes center stage, which prevents the film from being a classic, art, or best film of the year, in my opinion, but a film that is for the romantic moviegoer who wants to see the best in any situation. Knowing now about the controversies and the lack of involvement from the Shirley family, many feel the wool has been pulled over their eyes, or they have been had (personally, if you are looking for authenticity in Hollywood, you are in the wrong industry).
2018: A Groundbreaking Year for Film
This past year there have been so many great films being released on race relations, which is a direct reflection of the times we have lived in this past decade, not just the sheer numbers, but the quality that has been far superior to recent memory. Let’s look back at a few notable films, not to mention the milestone, mega-hit Black Panther, that have come out in 2018:
Blindspotting is essential viewing, causing a visceral reaction like Do the Right Thing did almost 30 years ago. It is the most important film of the year that tackles police misconduct, racial profiling, identity, and gentrification, unlike any film I have seen in modern film history. There are such thought-provoking scenes, so moving, I have never seen their like put on film before. You have the parking lot “blow up” between Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (the electric Rafael Casal), along with the companion scene when Miles then goes home to talk to his girlfriend Ashley (a scene-stealing Jasmine Cephas-Jones) sitting at a kitchen table; both are about confronting racial identity and the lack of understanding than the realization of what comes with being African-American. Along with the final act, while confronting the white cop, he saw gun down a defenseless man is mesmerizing. It’s a byproduct of a group that has felt unfair treatment and feelings of social injustice that comes pouring out in one explosive, ultimately moving, scene. The sparks fly, and the emotions run deep. The film lingers in your mind well after you leave the theatre.
Sorry to Bother You is a highly original, funny, thought-provoking film that gets better after multiple viewings (I saw it last June, and I don’t think I appreciated it enough then) and takes time to let its high-concept themes fester. It’s a nightmarish, racially-infused fairy tale before a company like Disney could get its greedy, capitalist hands on it; a product of today’s current racial, economic tensions and divides with a bonkers final act some can’t get their heads around, but it is a fairy tale that reflects economic, corporate slavery for minority classes.
What makes Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman so good is the disturbing parallels he draws from today’s current administration to that of the Grand Wizard of the KKK in 1980, David Duke. We watch Duke (Topher Grace) fall for the ruse, make statements about making America great again, good white Americans, and stereotypes of African-Americans. I wonder how many realize he ran for president in 1988 and made it farther than most thought possible. That was 30 years ago. Films are products of their times, and look what has happened in the United States today. The current administration was elected and now gives a platform to groups that support hate instead of groups looking for a platform to help spread ideas that support hope and equality. There are times in this film that are so moving that they cause a visceral reaction for the right and wrong reasons. One is a retelling of a lynching by Jerome Turner (played by the great Harry Belafonte in a powerful turn) to a group of young activists. The other is when Lee ties it all together with clips of events happening in the US today. Lee just melded together with a fictional world and pulled back the curtain on his audience many didn’t want to see.
Then, we have Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece If Beale Street Could Talk, his third feature film that is an overall testament of how enduring love is extended to everyone around us. If Beale Street Could Talk is the familial dream placed under a metaphorical grey cloud-covered canopy that celebrates the few precious rays of light, celebrated with joyous, life-affirming fulfillment. The result is the finest adaption this decade, and a beautiful rendition of Baldwin’s novel, so much so the characters are practically lifted off the pages and come vividly to life in front of your eyes. Jenkins captures 1970s Harlem, which was the end of the great migration, residents who couldn’t afford to leave because of racial, economic disparity, the popular practice of blockbusting, and illegal police actions. For many, the migration out of Harlem was not worth the effort; they may have escaped Southern segregation laws but now found themselves (or their kin) right back where the migration started, just in a different location. Leave it to Barry Jenkins to capture James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk backdrop of 70s Harlem while finding encompassing optimism, despite overwhelming hopelessness.
1989-1994 in Film
I see many parallels with 2018 films with nominations from a period of film from 1989 to 1994 that left out multiple cultural touchstones. Multiple films are still relevant today that was patted on the head, like little kids doing a good deed. Many were given nominations for screenplays, director (huge at the time, more on that later), and editing. The lack of minor classes nominated in the acting categories is apparent, as we know, and still is troubling today. Of the following films, we will look at below, all were left off the Best Picture nominees, and only one from that period had a minority in the lead that dealt with race relations. That film was Driving Miss Daisy. Today, the Academy still has a problem with the “white compromising” of film nominations when it comes to tackling issues of racial tensions, divides. A reflection of the lack of minority voices in the Academy during that time period is still an issue today.
1990 Best Picture Winner: Driving Miss Daisy
1990 Remaining Best Picture Nominees: Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams, My Left Foot
1990 Should Have Been Nominated for Best Picture: Do the Right Thing
1990 Should Have Won Best Picture Redo: Do the Right Thing
1990 Who Should Go?: Field of Dreams
In 1990, Do the Right Thing was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello). Of the Best Picture nominees that year, only one had to do with African-American issues (Driving Miss Daisy). The other films nominated dealt with the Vietnam war (Born on the Fourth of July), a coming of age tale about thinking outside the box and teenage suicide (Dead Poets Society), a baseball movie about a man seeing ghosts on his Iowa farm with daddy issues (Field of Dreams), and the true story of a man who overcomes cerebral palsy as a child to become a poet and artist (My Left Foot). Spike Lee was unjustly left off the director nominations for first-time director Kevin Branagh (Henry V).
Yes, Denzel Washington won for Glory, but even Marlon Brando was nominated for an acting award for a film called The Dry White Season (if that is not foreshadowing for the next 5 years, I don’t know what is). Even Glory, yes, told from the perspective of a book written by the white Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, was about the first black regiment, one of only four films to have 5 or more Oscar nominations, and is the only one of those films that did not score a Best Picture nomination, which is head-scratching. Is it acceptable that Lee was compensated with a screenplay nomination?
1991 Best Picture Winner: Silence of the Lambs
1991 Remaining Best Picture Nominees: Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, JFK, The Prince of Tides
1991 Should Have Been Nominated for Best Picture: Boyz n the Hood
1991 Should Have Won Best Picture Redo: JFK
1991 Who Should Go? Bugsy
While I enjoyed the film Bugsy and was warm on The Prince of Tides, these films were not the cultural touchstones that come close to what Boys n the Hood has become almost 20-plus years later. John Singleton was nominated for Original Screenplay and Best Director. Besides being left off Best Picture, one of the real misgivings must be Ice Cube being left off with the powder keg performance as Doughboy, who ultimately seeks revenge for his little brother Ricky’s (Morris Chestnut’s debut) murder, who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting. It was also a cultural milestone; not only was John Singleton the youngest man to ever be nominated for Best Director, but he was also the first African-American nominee in the category as well. Should that really be enough, however?
1994 Best Picture Winner: Unforgiven
1994 Remaining Best Picture Nominees: The Crying Game, A Few Good Men, Howards End, Scent of a Woman
1994 Should Have Been Nominated for Best Picture: Malcolm X
1994 Should Have Won Best Picture Redo: Malcolm X
1994 Who Should Go? Scent of a Woman
Malcolm X was voted the best film of 1994 by Roger Ebert. He called it “one of the great screen biographies, celebrating the sweep of an American life that bottomed out in prison before its hero reinvented himself.” Looking back at it now, it still may be the greatest biographical film ever made, with Malcolm X being gunned down and the chase out of the hall for his killers, still burnt in my memory. White-washing was not talked about in the 90s like it is today, and believe it or not, Washington’s casting as the main protagonist was under controversy at the time. So, let’s get this straight; it took over 25 years for white-washing issues for the likes of Matt Damon in The Great Wall and Emma Stone in Aloha, but some had the audacity to bring up that Denzel Washington didn’t resemble Malcolm X, partially because of his distant white ancestry (the real Malcolm X was quite a bit taller, and was lighter-skinned, noticeably reddish hair from his mother’s partially white West-Indies ancestry). The only other nomination for the film besides Best Actor for Denzel Washington? Best Costume Design, of course.
1995 Best Picture Winner: Forrest Gump
1995 Remaining Best Picture Nominees: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, Quiz Show
1995 Should Have Been Nominated for Best Picture: Hoop Dreams
1995 Should Have Won Best Picture Redo: Hoop Dreams
1995 Who Should Go? Four Weddings and a Funeral
Hoop Dreams is one of the best documentaries (so much more than a sports documentary, it’s the best documentary ever made). It is one of the first raw, unfiltered, and uncompromised films of the American Dream that combines issues of race, a not-talked-about social class system, the division of economics, educations, and values never seen on film. Imagine people talking about Friday Night Lights as just a football TV show. Hoop Dreams is not a documentary about basketball; it’s about real-life attempts to escape racial, economic disparity. Hoop Dreams wasn’t just left off Best Picture, but it was left off the list of Best Documentaries as well. How could this be?
Apparently, per Roger Ebert, “sources said members of the Academy’s documentary nomination committee had a system in which one would wave a flashlight on screen when they gave up on the film. When a majority of the lights flashed, the film was turned off” (is it me, or does that seem eerily familiar to the way Daniel Kaluuya was auctioned off in silence by Bradley Whitford in Get Out?). Even a book from Steve Pond accounts the dirty dealings to leave out Hoop Dreams at the time. The only nomination the film garnered was Best Editing. This was strange since there has been a direct correlation of a Best Film Editing nomination for every Best Picture winner from 1981-2003. Mark Harris, then of The New York Times, stated of those films,” two-thirds of the winners from that time from who won Best Picture, won Best Film Editing of the year.”
The Academy didn’t expand the nominees from 5 in 2008 for racial equality; they expanded the nominees for popular films left out in 2009; The Dark Knight and Wall-E were denied Best Picture nominees to increase television ratings. In a sense, this signified the thought process behind what is really behind the nominating process: money and marketing, which is the same thing, even more of a reflection now with the ridiculousness of the popular film category. We haven’t even touched politics yet. In the above period described, all were under Republican White Houses. Under the Obama administration, you had Best Picture winners 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight; now, under the Republican Trump White House, you have Green Book is more of a “white compromise” nominee than the other above-mentioned films. I read a tweet from a film critic proposing a film he saw last spring was a direct reflection of the new Trump White House; I’m starting to think it may be Green Book.
Driving Miss Daisy was a very good film, but the parallels with Green Book are obvious, with the main roles reversed. Was Daisy a “white compromise” with Academy voters instead of Do the Right Thing? Is Green Book, exactly 30 years later, reflecting the same thought process under Republican administrations? Is the Academy sacrificing art for mainstream appeal? These are the questions that need to be asked.
Yes, you can enjoy Green Book for what it is; a film that tries to look at the best in people in any situation, as I did, but it should not come away as the Best Picture nominee and certainly not the winner for this past year. If it does, I am starting to think politics plays a role in the film more than many of us are comfortable admitting.
In other words, it is not a product of how far we have come but a product of how far we are currently away.