‘Green Book’ shouldn’t have won Best Picture, but ‘BlacKkKlansman’ wouldn’t have been the right choice either
I’m tired of being disappointed when films made by black people about racism lose Oscars to films told through a white lens. However, the ‘Malcolm X’ director’s film was flawed too
The film in question, Green Book, covers the true friendship of Don Shirley, African-American classical and jazz musician, and his chauffeur Tony Vallelonga.
Many have compared the film to 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, with the twist that, this time, the black man sits in the back of the car. It’s been accused of doing the bare minimum to fix racism, making liberal white audiences feel good about themselves.
Overall, it was a shock win last night, especially considering that Alfonso Cuarón’s Netflix epic Roma was initially considered a shoo-in to win, and Spike Lee’s confrontational BlacKkKlansman was also vying for the prize.
However, I can’t say I’m surprised at all.
The Oscars have long been a game of two steps forward, one step back. For example last year, Jordan Peele’s outstanding Get Out was nominated for four awards, only to be beaten to Best Picture by The Shape of Water, Guillermo Del Toro’s 1960s fantasy which relegated Octavia Spencer to the role of “nice black friend”.
Progress had been made by nominating Peele’s film, but it losing to a film with unimaginative black characters seemed inevitable.
2019’s ceremony started strongly for black talent, as Regina King took home Best Supporting Actress for If Beale Street Could Talk, followed by awards for Ruth E Carter and Hannah Beachler for Best Costume Design and Best Production Design, respectively, for Black Panther.
Three awards going to black women in a row is a marvel in itself, but seeing them go to women who worked on pioneering works of black art is even more beautiful.
Moonlight’s Oscar win (the first for a film about a black LGBT+ character) felt like a fluke in 2016, and this finally felt like reinforcement of the fact that things were changing. However, as the night progressed and awards for black talent rapidly began to stop, it became clear that things ... had not.
To the surprise of few, the outspoken Spike Lee had some light to shed on the state of the ceremony: “Every time I’m nominated against a film where someone drives, I lose,” he commented in reference to the 1990 Oscars where Do The Right Thing was notably left out of the Best Film category, which was won by the “safer” Driving Miss Daisy. Lee’s disappointment in not winning the award last night was palpable, and his anger in losing to a much more palatable film about racial injustice must be frustrating.
Similarly frustrating however is Lee acting as though his film was more awards-worthy than Green Book. While BlacKkKlansman goes a little further into exploring complex issues surrounding race and taps into the current political climate by drawing lines from the story of Ron Stallworth all the way to Charlottesville, it’s still a deeply flawed film.
Characters lack nuance and are sorted into oversimplified categories of “good” or “bad” – you’re an evil KKK member or you’re a hero that’s down for the cause. Lee’s gone from telling us to “fight the power” to showing us that “hey, not all cops are bad!”.
Perhaps the dilemma with the Oscars is that – with the exception of Moonlight, which truly felt like a one-off – every film by or about black people that’s won Best Picture, from In the Heat of the Night to 12 Years a Slave, has been predominantly preoccupied with racism.
But what if films led by black talent behind or in front of the screen that aren’t – Sorry to Bother You, Creed II, Support the Girls or Madeline’s Madeline to name a few – had been nominated, and god forbid, won instead?
I’ve gotten to the point where I’m tired of being disappointed when films about black people made by black people about what it’s like to deal with racism, lose to films told through a white lens about the very same thing.
What would truly feel revolutionary would be a film by and/or about black people that had nothing to do with the discrimination they withstand winning the big prizes at the Oscars.
And in the meantime? They could’ve just sat there and let Black Panther win.
Grace Barber-Plentie is a freelance film writer and programmer specialising in depictions of people of colour, particularly black women, in pop culture. She also works as part of the marketing team at the British Film Institute