Driving the conversation about race and equality in the Academy.
February 3rd, 2020
Looking back at 2019’s Academy Awards Stefanos discusses if the Oscar-winner- Green Book is more like Crash-ing Miss Daisy, than the diversity play it wanted to be.
Last year’s Oscars were met with mixed reactions from the industry and the press. Positive appraisals went to Netflix’s Roma, winning three awards, with Spike Lee getting his first golden statue in his career for his critically acclaimed BlacKkKlansman. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse walked away with the Best Animated Feature Film award, while superhero film Black Panther nabbed three awards with the costume designer, Ruth E. Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler becoming the first people of colour to win an Academy Award for their respective categories.
The Academy managed to satisfy cynics of the award ceremony with its celebration of diversity until the show came to a close with the final category: Best Picture.
Green Book was announced as the big winner of the night, back on February 2019, and the internet exploded with comments from both film fans and critics while watching the director, co-writer and co-producer, Peter Farrelly, give his speech in thanks for the recognition from members of the Academy.
Even members of the audience in the auditorium weren’t thrilled, especially Spike Lee, who was also nominated in the same category, causing him to try and leave the auditorium when presenter Julia Roberts announced the winner.
As we prepare for another controversial ceremony with the likes of historical representations in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and the very white casts of The Irishman and Ford V Ferrari, what can we learn from last years winner?
Green Book is set in 1962, with Italian-American Tony Vallelonga driving African-American musician Dr Donald Shirley through a tour to the southern states of the US. The two develop a strong friendship, besides their differences. Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali play the roles of Vallelonga and Dr Shirley respectively.
Green Book had been on the wrong foot even before its bittersweet win. From the use of the n-word by the film’s co-star Viggo Mortensen during a press event to past inappropriate behaviour from Farrelly on set, and anti-Islamic tweets from the co-writer Nick Vallelonga over three years ago.
Bigger issues also come about from the depiction of the real-life events in the film, as the core relationship between Vallelonga and Dr Shirley, was completely fictionalised by the musician’s family. The Shirley family openly stated that the relationship of Dr Shirley with Vallelonga was completely an employer/employee manner rather than emotionally rich as depicted in the film.
Beyond the issues of accuracy to the real-life people, criticism had been made of its depiction of racial relations in America as being outdated and unoriginal. Comparisons were made by critics and audiences with the 1989 Oscar Best Picture winner, Driving Miss Daisy, another film that deals with the friendship of an African-American and a Caucasian who bond through their car rides.
After Green Book’s Best Picture win, comparisons to the 2006 Oscars when Crash won the same category, another race relation film that got similar reactions from critics, with claims that it was not worthy of the recognition. It has since been named as the biggest mistake the Academy has made in its history.
Due to all these comments and comparisons, Green Book has been added to a shortlist of films that include the ‘white saviour’ trope. These films usually tackle a similar subject matter of race relations with a Caucasian character assisting a racial minority character to reach personal or professional goals. Characters like this have been portrayed by actors such as Kevin Costner in Hidden Figures, which is completely fictional, and Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. These are the most noted examples in recent years from critics including Viggo Mortensen’s Tony.
Indian-British film studies graduate Dipika Hopkins states: “Green Book is the latest addition to the list of films which uses the ‘white saviour’ complex as an easy way out instead of focusing on developing stronger character arcs, it still doesn’t affect my core opinion of the film.” Hopkins notes really enjoying it primarily for the performances of the two lead actors, and their interactions with one another which has been the main praise the film received.
Xie Wang, a London based commercial producer, says: “The ‘white saviour’ comparisons did not have much of an impact on my opinion.” Wang references her Chinese heritage as a reason behind her enjoyment of Green Book: “My culture does not have the same sensitivity as Westerners towards some ‘politically correct subjects’ and the only thing that made it ‘white saviour’ is what happened outside the film” because in the film ‘they both saved each other.”
While Wang admits that she has no knowledge of the real story of Dr Shirley and Vallelonga she still loves the story: “It’s the conflicts between the leads, fueled from their difference of education, life experience, and cultural background, rather than from the colour of their skin.”
Even though it is what Wang calls: “a third-party method of telling the story, altering events for the benefit of drama, it’s more like a musician’s trip of searching for the meaning of his existence as a human and accepting his black identity.” She acknowledges that as a work of fiction it is a good story which goes beyond the race, but as a real-life story she says: “there’s still a long way to eliminate the discrimination based on the colour of skin, which is a true shame.”
The reaction to Green Book has been particularly hard to swallow due to the racial progress the American film industry has seen for the last couple of years, from the aforementioned successful Black Panther and last year’s box office hit Crazy Rich Asians. Hopkins feels: “A lot of times such efforts made by the industry are taken as especially evident, although some filmmakers still fall back on stereotypes.”
Although, Hopkins’ disappointment on Green Book’s win was not due to its controversies: “It was the matter of the film being a weaker contender in comparison to the likes of Roma and BlacKkKlansman.” She understands the reasoning of Spike Lee’s reaction at the end of the ceremony, believing it was justified: “Especially when his film was more innovative, thought-provoking and visceral.”
However, Wang responds to the call-out of the race and gender of the producers as not understandable: “It does not in any way bring a bad image to the racial sensitivity the industry is trying to achieve.” She questions: “Why should all ‘white-middle-aged’ men crew creating an Oscar-winning black-related film should be such an issue? I once had a producer friend tell me that she’s planning to make a movie with an all-female crew. To me, that sounds like a manifesto, an action art, more than making a film. It’s an ideological war simply for the sake of race, gender, and colour instead of trying to reveal the very deep feelings and very true emotions of the human being in an artistic way. The power of racial sensitivity/ political correctness has been abused by some invisible force beyond the film itself, and the filmmakers and the films are literally victims.”
For Wang, Green Book: “Is simply a reflection. You see what’s in your mind, what you want to see. If your opinion of the film switches from good to bad because you knew who made it, and how it got made, then it’s you who is being restricted by your ideology, your background, and your political preference.”
Wang still supports and encourages American studios: “They could definitely be braver while considering investments to production which involves talented minority actors and excellent minority crews.” The success of Crazy Rich Asians and Girls Trip signify what Wang refers to as: “High time for the industry to make some changes, and start getting more open-minded to the minority professionals in it.”
Hopkins adds: “With the changing mindset in the industry I do think that films which represent the minorities in their cast and crew are becoming more mainstream as seen with the financial and critical success of Black Panther, along with Get Out and Moonlight becoming Oscar winners. Having actors and directors equivalent to the likes of Mahershala Ali, Daniel Kaluuya, Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins, and of course Spike Lee still active, means there’ll be no shortage of talent and storytelling abilities.”
Jordan Peele, through his acclaimed directorial work with Get Out and Us, has become one of the most celebrated voices for African American audiences. Peel, during the promotion of Us, has cited his effort to cast “only black leading roles" in an effort to help create representation in the genre. Hopkins celebrates the goal: “Change starts with the one person who attempts to make the change they wish to see.”
Wang, on the other hand, states: “Even though Peele has a rightful choice to decide whom they choose to work with, if we change the perspective of the argument and switch the race remark to a white filmmaker saying that he will cast only white leading roles or a male filmmaker says he will make a film with all-male crew would it come to a negative reception? If not then why is it okay the other way around?”
Wang states: “I’m a minority and I work hard to find a solution to pursue the equal chance inside society, inside the industry, rather than working hard to discriminate those I think are part of the majority. Peele should have cared more about creating the content which represents the racial identity better, which suits the black leading role better than starting a protest against the white leading roles.”
The American industry seems to have heard Peele’s remarks by continuing increasing productions with filmmakers and casts of different minorities on both film and television alike. As both Hopkins and Wang are minority filmmakers in an industry that has been believed to be a male-dominated field, they do not find any issues affecting their work.
Wang does not face any discriminating atmosphere in the UK in the commercial industry. She feels: “You’ll be acknowledged mainly by your ability and professionalism, rather than your colour, race or gender.” Hopkins agrees. In both the UK and in her current residence in New Zealand: “The people that I have got to work with have all been incredible and no such issues have affected my line of work.”
The road to the progressive goal that numerous members of the industry are trying to accomplish still has a way to go. The chances look better in comparison to not so long ago when the ‘Oscars so white’ took place, when brave films like The Favourite, Moonlight, Us and Roma are being made, with new filmmakers appearing every year, innovation will not stop.
Now with the nominations and potential winners for this year’s 92nd Academy Awards announced, a major backlash on the lack of diversity on in its directing and acting categories has cropped up once again. With the exception of Cynthia Erivo and Antonio Banderas, the rest of the actors are Caucasian in English-speaking roles, from a year filled with critically praised performances from people of colour and various nationalities.
Further negative responses came from the exclusion of female filmmakers from the directors’ branch, with the entirety of the Best Director category being male, and (with the exception of Parasite’s Bong Joon-Ho) white.
2019 has been a strong year for female directors, from Lulu Wang’s indie darling The Farewell, to Greta Gerwig’s re-imagining of Little Women.
Film, in general, has become vast, from the cinema to streaming services. Television has been said to still be in its golden age, with representation and innovation co-existing peacefully. Last year was the age of big hits from productions representing people of racial minorities and women, in the likes of Fleabag, Watchmen, David Makes Man, Russian Doll, and When They See Us.
Even the Oscars, who have been getting criticized on the acting and directing categories have still made some new progressive additions. From the Documentary Feature category, with four out of five nominated films being co-directed by women, to South Korea’s box office and critics hit, Parasite, not only being the first film of the country getting nominated but also being the 11th foreign film to be joint nominated for the Best Picture Category (also Bong Joo-Ho being the first Korean to be nominated for Best Director and Original Screenplay).
Asking the question if Green Book was the right film to win the Oscar a year ago, or if it is a formulaic version of films of the past? In the end, it does not matter.
Everyone has a difference of opinion and trying to find out if the film deserved the win, it will not stop it being the Best Picture winner. The most important thing is the fact people are talking about important subject matters like the representation of minority groups, and the progression of the art form.
If there is one thing Green Book succeeded in is starting a conversation of how we can do better, to get more films like Parasite, Little Women and Us.
Stefanos Yoo-Min Florakis