Programming note: This update comes a bit late this week. I’m still trying to find the correct balance between waiting until I have time to write a substantive update, vs. being as timely as possible. Thanks for sticking with me as I figure it out.
The Oscars happened this week! I know, it feels like a few years ago already, but as we pass this moment, I wanted to pause and take a moment to reflect on how historic the 91st Academy Awards were. Lots of talented people of color took home awards, including:
- Ruth E. Carter, who became the first African-American woman to win Best Costume Design (for Black Panther). Her colleague, Hannah Beachler, was the first African-American to take home the prize for Best Production Design.
- Mahershala Ali, who became the first African-American actor to win for Best Supporting Actor twice.
- Rami Malek, who became the first Egyptian-American to win Best Actor
- Asian-Americans Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who won Best Documentary for Free Solo (and were nominated alongside Bing Liu for the excellent Minding the Gap).
- I was also personally gratified that Domee Shi won an Oscar for her work on Pixar’s animated short, Bao.
And then Green Book won Best Picture.
Remember when we thought that revealing the director is a penis flasher and the writer as an islamophobic racist and they whole movie is based on a lie would be enough to keep this white savior movie from winning?
— Lexi Alexander (@Lexialex) February 25, 2019
Green Book’s journey to the Oscars has been a rocky one. The real-life family of one of its protagonists called the film a “symphony of lies.” Its writer was discovered to have made a Trump-supporting anti-Muslim tweet. Yet Green Book soldiered on.
And that’s all without even discussing the quality of the film itself. To my mind, Mark Harris wrote the definitive explanation of what’s wrong with the film:
Green Book is a but also movie, a both sides movie, and in that, it extends a 50-year-plus tradition of movies that tell a story about American racism that has always been irresistibly appealing, on and offscreen, to that portion of white Americans who see themselves as mediators. They’re the reasonable, non-racist people poised halfway between unrepentant, ineducable racists on one side and, on the other, black people who, in this version of the American narrative, almost always have something to learn themselves. The trope was first, most famously and most effectively, deployed in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, in which the redneck cop played by Rod Steiger has much to learn from the intellectually superior Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), but also something to teach him about not letting anger or a desire for vengeance cloud his judgment. Norman Jewison, that film’s director, knew that that brief comeuppance for Poitier was the spoonful of sugar that would make the medicine of an authoritative black man onscreen palatable to an audience that had almost never seen one depicted before. Fifty years ago, the film was a galvanizing moment in Hollywood history in part because it played wildly differently to black and white, to southern and northern, and to older and younger moviegoers. But while crowds cheered Poitier fighting back, Hollywood gave Steiger the Oscar; for the Academy, it was the white character’s journey, and his humanity, in which the stakes of the film resided.
I found Green Book to be a competently made film, but as Harris indicates, it is depressingly retrograde in its treatment of race and, as a result, feels like it was made for a different era. In a year that saw the release of films like BlackkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, and Black Panther, we’ve seen that tackling racial issues and politics can result in interesting and brilliant work when approached from a unique perspective. Green Book keeps its feet planted firmly in the familiar past.
That’s why Green Book’s win is such a disappointment. It feels like Academy voters grasping for a past that no longer exists and probably never did. In fact, according to a troubling NYTimes piece, Green Book’s evocation of nostalgia is why some people voted for it:
One voter, a studio executive in his 50s, admitted that his support for “Green Book” was rooted in rage. He said he was tired of being told what movies to like and not like. (Much of the public debate about “Green Book” has turned on its handling of racial issues, which some see as woefully retrograde and borderline bigoted.)
“Green Book,” a slick crowd-pleaser set in the Deep South in 1962, strains to put you in a good mood. Its victory is appalling but far from shocking: From the moment it won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, the first of several key precursors it would pick up en route to Sunday’s Oscars ceremony, the movie was clearly a much more palatable brand of godawful. In telling the story of the brilliant, erudite jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who is chauffeured on his Southern concert tour by a rough-edged Italian-American bouncer named Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), “Green Book” serves up bald-faced clichés and stereotypes with a drollery that almost qualifies as disarming.[…]
I can tell I’ve already annoyed some of you, though if you take more offense at what I’ve written than you do at “Green Book,” there may not be much more to say. Differences in taste are nothing new, but there is something about the anger and defensiveness provoked by this particular picture that makes reasonable disagreement unusually difficult. Maybe “Green Book” really is the movie of the year after all — not the best movie, but the one that best captures the polarization that arises whenever the conversation shifts toward matters of race, privilege and the all-important question of who gets to tell whose story.
There’s very little I disagree with in this piece, but it’s so brutal that it almost made me feel bad for Green Book?
A few more links to consider as we come to the end of a memorable awards season:
- Sean Fennessey calls the Green Book win the result of a possible whitelash by Academy voters.
- If you’re curious how the Oscars preferential ballot system works, you can read this explainer or watch this video by Ryan Casselman.
- Wesley Morris writes about why the Oscars keep falling for racial reconciliation fantasies.
- This “White Savior” movie trailer is pretty spot on.
- I made a Periscope reaction video (featured on Periscope homepage!) right after the Oscars. You can also listen to a podcast discussion on this week’s Slashfilmcast.
A political addendum: We live in extraordinary times. This week, Michael Cohen testified in front of Congress and laid out numerous acts of wrongdoing that the President of the United States has instigated and covered up. The Cohen testimony was gripping television — Shakespearean in its machinations, powerful in its final manifestation — but the one moment that stuck out to me was when Cohen identified his GOP questioners as being on the same dark road that he went down already:
After a relentless battering from Republican lawmakers over his established dishonesty, including lying to Congress, Cohen called them out for carrying President Trump’s water. He pointed to a poster board that a Republican lawmaker had put up with the words “LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE!” next to a supersize photo of Cohen.
“It’s that sort of behavior that I’m responsible for. I’m responsible for your silliness because I did the same thing that you’re doing now for 10 years,” he told the Republican committee members. “I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years.”
Then he warned, more ominously, “The more people that follow Mr. Trump as I did blindly are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”
The dynamic was striking: a former lackey, trying to warn the present lackeys that they will one day come to regret their decisions. An image of past and present together on one national stage. Sadly, I don’t think the message got through.
A few more things to consider:
- One of the best breakdowns of this testimony comes from the always-excellent New York Times podcast The Daily. Listen to it here.
- Rachel Maddow explains some of the legal implications of Cohen’s admissions.
- Seth Meyers has an a funny breakdown of the Cohen testimony on his late night show.
And finally, some other odds and ends from the week:
- Casey Newton has a blockbuster story about the working conditions of Facebook content moderators. Worth reading and listening to the follow up podcast.
- The Masked Singer was a show that was loaded with contradictions and insanity, and Megan Garber from The Atlantic captures it perfectly in her write-up of the finale.
- Joe Pinsker explains that it’s not kids that cause unhappiness; it’s the cost of raising them.
- Kevin Roose writes about his smartphone addiction, and how he learned to move past it.