As everyone (and especially every conservative) knows, the Oscars of the last few years have been notable for their #Resistance moments. These have ranged from Meryl Streep’s mild rebuke of President Trump to the ugly and very inconvenient truths revealed by #MeToo to Frances McDormand’s and Patricia Arquette’s demands for “inclusion riders” and gender equality.
For the most part, however, this year’s Oscars chose to let the awards speak for themselves. A film about the private lesbian world of Queen Anne, another about an out gay male rock singer who died of AIDS, plus an African superhero, a neorealist Mexican dramedy, a movie about a “Black Klansman,” another about a black classical pianist and his downscale white buddy, and even “a film about menstruation” all won big prizes last night. While critics made fun of “Oscar So White” a couple years ago, of all the major acting and directing categories, only one award went to a white person (Olivia Colman) this go-round. Carrying the rest were Regina King, Mahershala Ali, Rami Malek, and Alfonso Cuaron, along with plenty of big wins for African-American behind-the-scenes artists. (And at long last, the great Cicely Tyson won her more-than-deserved honorary Oscar, which she was awarded at a special ceremony last November.)
Before I get pulled over by the Tone Police, I want to say that this is not in any way a criticism, at least not from me. Just this morning, I spoke with a man whom I deeply respect and with whom I’ve worked for almost seven years in indie film distribution. While he’s in my age group and is as much a film fanatic as I am, he told me that he never really envisioned being up on the Oscar stage—until this year. As the late great Carmen McRae might have put it, in the past, nominations for black, Latino, and Middle Eastern artists used to be here or there, but they were never everywhere. On Sunday, that changed.
While most of the wins for the major categories went to the odds-on faves, the first of the evening’s two biggest surprises came when British actress Olivia Colman beat out Glenn Close for Best Actress. Colman’s stunning acceptance speech was hands-down the classiest act of the evening, and capped with her giving a personal dedication to 10-time nominee Close that recalled the night in 1998 when Ving Rhames gave his Golden Globe to his acting idol and fellow nominee Jack Lemmon.
Her Best Actor male counterpart, Rami Malek, was the clear frontrunner for his embodiment of the late Queen singer Freddie Mercury. The fact that the two top feature film nominees came mainly from the world of “peak TV” (USA’s prestige flagship Mr. Robot in Malek’s case; Netflix’s The Crown in Colman’s) was certainly a sign of today’s digital-era fluidity in film storytelling and multi-platform content.
And that was only a hint of Oscar’s storylines this year.
In the grand showbiz tradition, the real stunner came with the big finish—and while there wasn’t an envelope malfunction like there was two years ago, critics and viewers alike were just as shocked at the verdict. While most people were essentially wondering whether it would be Black Panther or Roma to take best picture (with a few contrarians rooting for A Star is Born or Bohemian Rhapsody), the comparatively little-known and little-buzzed-about Green Book nailed the night’s top honor in the biggest upset of the evening.
Green Book tells the story of the unlikely real-life friendship between an educated black classical pianist on tour in the American South during the end of Jim Crow (played by Mahershala Ali) and the tough, white working class driver and bodyguard he hires for the trip (Viggo Mortensen). The film’s title comes from the Auto Club-like guide that was a staple of African-American homes during the segregation era, which listed what restaurants and hotels were willing to serve traveling people of color.
As Lisa Respers France of CNN put it, Green Book’s Oscar win “is so our country right now.” She goes on to say that the film has “caused a divide” between those who see it as an uplifting celebration of interracial friendship “and those who see it as racist.” (Needless to say, it also perfectly runs down today’s political divide between the sympathies of merely liberal older people and downright leftist younger activists.)
The main controversy over Green Book isn’t that it glorifies racism or white supremacy (even its harshest critics recognize it does anything but). The criticism was that it was a throwback to the self-congratulatory days of harmless, uplifting cozies like Driving Miss Daisy and Forrest Gump, as it “centered” the white male lead and reduced the black man to a supporting character in what was largely his story. (The family of the late pianist, Doctor Don Shirley, called the film a “symphony of lies.”)
The Obama era saw an unprecedented number of films that centered almost exclusively on characters of color. These demanded that white viewers be able to put themselves in the characters’ shoes without an audience surrogate to make things safer for them. Even films like Precious and For Colored Girls, which didn’t flinch at indulging in negative stereotypes, had their heroines pull themselves and/or each other out of the hole at the end rather than being rescued by a handy “white savior” who felt empathy for them.
Likewise, Black Panther was the proudly Afro-centric story of a tough, elegant black superhero who could save the day all by himself. And BlacKkKlansman’s story and topic almost speaks for itself. Of course, its director, Spike Lee, won the “Oscar” for Woke Moment of the Night with his thinly veiled attack on Trump and his warning to “do the right thing” in the 2020 election. (While prepping this article, I read a headline that said something like “Spike Lee Gets Political at the Oscars,” and laughed out loud. Saying there’s a political component to Spike Lee’s art and persona is like saying there’s a basketball component to the Lakers.)
Lee was reportedly so furious at Green Book’s surprise win that he turned his back to the camera during the end of the mill-around. Seth Meyers, even before Green Book actually took the top prize, did a brutal satire of “white savior” films. And Richard Brody went full-on Terminator against the whole night’s awards ceremony in his almost self-parodically radical-chic takedown in The New Yorker. Even civil rights legend Congressman John Lewis, who introduced Green Book, alongside Amandla Stenberg, the star of another civil rights-themed picture, The Hate U Give, was not immune to the Twitter backlash.
The other big-picture takeaway is that, with all of the many platforms for movies these days, and with the Academy under pressure to take films from outside the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, and Paris seriously, of the Best Picture nominees, only Black Panther, A Star is Born, and Bohemian Rhapsody (and maybe Vice if you’re being generous) could be called “blockbuster hits.”
Because of the exponential growth in independent film, the Oscars already expanded their Best Picture category from a maximum of five to a maximum of 10 selections a decade ago. As content and platforms have only continued to expand and explode, with major “studio films” more and more dependent on comics and actioners to pay the bills, the Best Picture nominees have only gotten more avant-garde, with magical realist films from diverse directors (Birdman, Roma, The Shape of Water) and intimate, indie-flavored character studies (Lady Bird, Boyhood, Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name) ruling the roost. Meanwhile, as this year’s secondary wins for Black Panther and others illustrate, comic book and action films are being taken more and more seriously.
In some ways, while I was personally against the idea before it happened, having a “host-less Oscars” seems an apt metaphor for the entire night. The days of five film studios or three or four networks having a near-monopoly on all the “good” or “important” works are long gone. While the explosion of content and of possibilities is a good thing, the drawback is that there seems to be no more unifying center to our current popular culture.
Except, perhaps, for the Oscars themselves.
Telly Davidson is the author of a new book, Culture War: How the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”