Why the Oscars Left Many of Us Feeling Like Spike Lee

The Academy took several steps forward and a couple of Tony Little-length strides back

Spike Lee, Oscars 2019, Academy Awards

Huh. That started off well and ended a little rockier, didn’t it?

Last night, for those of you who still know/care, the 91st annual Academy Awards ceremony took place. And after a great deal of run-up controversy, by and large, it still felt like the Oscars telecast we know, love, and angrily live-Tweet once a year. Sure, there was no host, but the generally well-written presenter segments and renewed focus on the movies and filmmakers themselves were a welcome change. Most of the Best Original Song nominees made the telecast after all, right up to and including Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper smoldering at one another onstage during a spirited live rendition of “Shallow”. Some of the year’s most unexpected hits felt the love, with Black Panther in particular winning Marvel’s first three Oscars in all.

And yet, this morning, it feels like everyone still wound up pissed off about the show yet again. Somehow, some way, the Oscars managed to take several steps forward and a couple of Tony Little-length strides back in the same 195-minute broadcast, it would seem.

Green Book (Universal)
Green Book (Universal)

Let’s just start by addressing the elephant in the room: a lot of that had to do with the show concluding in major-category wins for Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody. Regular readers of this site’s film criticism will recall that we weren’t exactly fans of either, particularly Rhapsody, but for much of this year’s awards cycle, it seemed like the major races were anyone’s to win. Given the demographic changes in recent years to the voting body of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, even pundits began to wonder if an unlikelier choice could win the big ones. Would the Oscars complete the narrative of A Star is Born and honor Gaga’s big-screen lead debut? Could Roma, an intensely personal black-and-white period piece delivered in two different languages take the Oscars back to the halcyon days of auteur filmmaking running the show? Could it actually be a Marvel movie?

That Green Book won Best Picture wasn’t seen as a surprise by most viewers, but as more of a letdown for many, a reminder about things changing and yet staying the same and so on. It’s not even that the film is necessarily the year’s worst nominee (more on that shortly), but that it’s the kind of broad, crowd-pleasing, topical-but-not-actually prestige piece for which the term “Oscar bait” was invented long ago. You can practically feel the obligatory narrative boxes being checked off as it goes along: a drama about fraught American race relations (check) set long enough ago for audiences to feel a comfortable disconnection from the events depicted (check), featuring a smattering of comedy for accessibility (check), a pair of respected actors (check) playing out interracial conflicts (check) in an ultimately good-natured way (check), and a depiction of racism that doesn’t actually capture the life-and-death venom of the subject (check). It’s based on a true story (check), directed by a long-tenured filmmaker stepping way outside their comfort zone (check), and doesn’t pose any ideas more radical than that conversations and mutual understanding between the races will lead to a better tomorrow for all (check check check).

Green Book (Universal)
Green Book (Universal)

It’s a deeply cynical way to approach a movie that many viewers have enjoyed, and even been moved by in some way. That’s a point well worth acknowledging, and one that much of the dialogue around the film has tended to miss in recent months. Some of it is a critical base deeply exhausted with surface-level films of this nature, some of it is the Oscars not exactly leaving a ton of room for nuance by pitting films against one another. But to really understand the backlash against Green Book requires an active understanding of the last 40-50 years of Academy history, the many films left aside as one major issue, and the many films which were honored in their stead as a second and arguably far bigger one. Summarily, Green Book is the definition of a “safe choice,” the kind of film which clearly pleased enough audiences in its own time, while also standing as yet another symbol of an industry ever resistant to change. It’s the kind of movie that would feel at home in the Oscars of the ’80s or ’90s, a movie about a difficult present-day topic offering simpler answers than a more nuanced take on the material ever could (or probably would).

Few involved in the production of the film probably intended for it to become such a lightning rod, and to an end, this pick-a-team ideology is again at least partly a beast of the Academy’s own creation. However, the Oscars exist at a curious place in the changing landscape of film appreciation and criticism, because the era of movies simply being movies, or any pop culture simply existing as itself, has very likely come to its end. There’s no longer the veil of mystery between a film and the circumstances of its production that audiences once enjoyed; in its place has been the total exposure of who the people are who make our movies, act in our movies, produce our movies, and put them into theaters. Knowing who the gatekeepers are, and especially knowing what drives them, has led to certain impossibilities in film appreciation. It’s increasingly difficult to enforce a separation of the art and artist, because the artist is now a part of their own narrative. In a world where everybody lives in public, there’s no real chance of burying your head in the sand and going back to when awards shows were glitzy and fun and not a constant reminder of who is and is not valued in the industry, who gets to decide which movies are the “best,” and what those movies say about the world at large.

Returning to Green Book as an example of this, Green Book was not just a film about the semi-true dynamic between Dr. Don Shirley and Nick Vallelonga by the time the Oscars cycle rolled around. It was the movie written by the guy who tweeted at Donald Trump about racist 9/11 conspiracy theories years ago. The Oscar hopeful directed by a filmmaker who reportedly used to expose himself on set to cast and crew as a joke. The movie as proof that the Oscars haven’t actually changed that much, because a film bearing more than a passing thematic and dramatic resemblance to Driving Miss Daisy was a front-runner yet again. This editorial isn’t here to argue whether these things are necessarily fair to judge the film upon or not; each viewer’s own experiences and biases are going to reflect the ways in which they read a movie. The greater point is that Oscar nominees no longer exist in a vacuum. No movie does, but the Oscars provide quite the spotlight for those chosen.

See: Bohemian Rhapsody, a film which managed to win four Academy Awards (the most of any film on the night) without a single speech including the filmmaker who finished about 80% of the movie and still had his name all over the blockbuster hit upon its release. While the backlash against Green Book is a fair deal more complicated and involves everything from industry history to issues of historical authenticity, Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie directed by Bryan Singer, and many audiences resented that the film was put in a position to be this big of a deal with his name attached to it in the first place. There’s certainly a conversation to be had about the work of the hundreds of other people who are not a film’s top-line director as related to its value and success, particularly a production as notoriously troubled as this one, but it’s that Oscars mentality raring its head again. Why, of the hundreds of movies and even the numerous critically and/or commercially successful ones released in 2019, do you pick this movie by this guy to put on a pedestal? What does it say to Singer’s numerous accusers on record that there are levels of clout one can reach where their crimes are no longer relevant?

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody

This is the eternal loop of awards season, and really of appreciating art at large these days. To detach the work from its larger context feels like equivocation, or irresponsibility; to consider all of it together means that no shortage of your heroes and the things they make will eventually disappoint you. There are no easy answers to the question of what somebody should do with their love for something made by a provably indecent person, but much of the Oscar-season tension among critics and viewers alike comes from the truth that we all have to try and ask it. Whatever the answer may be, trying is essential.

However, the trying can sometimes begin to feel a lot like slamming your head against a wall. Just ask Spike Lee, who won his first non-honorary Oscar last night for his credit on BlacKkKlansman‘s screenplay, only to take visible umbrage later in the night with Green Book nabbing the top prize. Whatever you might think of Lee’s response, it’s hard not to see a certain symmetry between a Lee film about the immediacy and continued omnipresence of American racism happening to lose out to a slicker, simpler, more hand-holding address of the same. It happened almost 30 years ago now when Driving Miss Daisy won in a year where Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated in the top category. To Lee, and to many, it’s been decades and it would seem as though nothing has changed at all. (Except for having a sitting US President who thought that Lee decrying racism was a personal attack on him, anyway.) The industry may be changing at many other levels these days, but the old-guard honors remain the same.

Having said that, and to conclude an argument that after a point will only ever return to being cyclical, the industry is changing. It’ll never be quickly enough to protect all the people we still don’t know about who are being harassed or abused or held down, but it is. The Oscars may or may not change, and it’s the right of both creators and viewers to decide whether to keep giving it their patronage in the years to come. The movies have rarely been as exciting as they are right now, particularly anywhere down below the studio level, and it bears remembering that the most discussed films of the last few years do not generally include titles like The Artist or The King’s Speech among them. We always want to see our awards shows, our top industry honors, reflect the better art and nature of the industry. But the art that matters will get in front of people, and more importantly, it’ll stick around. Whether any one Oscar winner can say the same is the choice of time and cultural change.


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