The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Does Green Book deserve the backlash against it?

Written by: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer


Okay, thanks for reading, everyone! Be sure to leave a comme-oh. I guess the answer is a little more complicated than that, and can reveal some insights into the changing demographics of the Academy voting membership and the film industry in general, so here goes…

I don’t need to tell you Green Book is a bad movie. Most people under the age of 55 with even a slightly discerning taste in movies can see it’s a pandering, dumbed-down piffle of shameless Oscarbait specifically catered to make white Baby Boomers feel better about the state of race relations in America. Sure, things were bad back then, but look at how the power of friendship endured through it and discovered that deep down, we’re not so different after all!

I don’t need to rehash the myriad historical inaccuracies that have understandably upset Don Shirley’s surviving family members. I imagine most people reading this already agree with me that the film is hopelessly muddled in its observations of race, class, and sexuality, forcing contrived “redemption arcs” on both Tony and Don that feel slight (Tony learns to tolerate black people in his home and Don is more… willing to embrace racial stereotypes, I guess?) and obviously fabricated. Did you notice how, despite the epilogue’s insistence that they remained lifelong friends after this tour, the movie provided not a single photograph of the two of them together? And as much as I’m tempted, I won’t even get into what a laughable cartoon version of a Noo Yoawk Eye-talian Viggo Mortensen channels as Tony Lip.

Green Book only escapes being truly offensive by virtue of its relatively meager ambitions. But that’s the problem with its successful awards run, isn’t it? We can understand seeing something like this breathlessly praised as a bold masterpiece, say, thirty years ago, but a threat for Best Picture now? From a post-Moonlight Academy? Especially with all the bad press it’s been getting, lately? I’m not talking about normal Oscar season “backlash” bad press, either. For all the film goes on about “maintaining your dignity,” it seems Mahershala Ali – oh hey, another instance of attempted category fraud! – is suspiciously the only member of the film’s core creative team to address Green Book‘s problems with a modicum of responsibility or self-reflection. Everyone else has either been making embarrassing gaffes, acted petulant and self-righteous at seemingly every public event honoring the movie, or in the director’s case, being revealed as a creep who behaves inappropriately around women in professional settings.

Oh, right, and this:

One of the co-writers of Green Book, and before you ask, the answer is yes.

The awards success of Green Book can’t even be explained away as a matter of craven profit-chasing in an attempt to avoid having to resurrect the possibility of that godforsaken “Best Popular Film” category, either. Green Book has been doing well… ish, at the box office, but it’s hardly pulling in The Blind Side or even Crash dollars. It’s certainly not the kind of apparent frontrunner you’d think would emerge from an Academy membership desperately trying to nominate more hits for Best Picture this year.

So the question, then, is why? Why is this movie that relatively few people seem to believe is any good at all, turning only a modest profit, and felt musty pretty much the day it hit theaters the most likely bet to win cinema’s highest honor next month? I don’t know if there is any one answer to this question, but one clue might lie in what a great year 2018 was for movies in general, and how few of the best ones comfortably fit into the mold of typical awards bait that, let’s not forget, is still popular among Academy voters.

Remember 1999? Indisputably one of the most important, exciting, and productive years for film of at least the last thirty years. Probably fifty years. That was the year of Eyes Wide Shut, Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, The Insider, The Straight Story, Fight Club, The Blair Witch Project, Summer of Sam, Boys Don’t CryMagnolia… and I’m just limiting myself to listing American cinema off the top of my head. That was the year we were blessed with revolutionary technological advancements in visual effects like “bullet time” and Deep Canvas, the arrival of exciting new talents like Spike Jonze and the swan song of the great Stanley Kubrick. It seemed like not a weekend went by without another release threatening to rewrite every rule of motion pictures. Which means the Best Picture lineup of the 72nd Academy Awards was gangbusters, right? Wrong! Well, it wasn’t totally barren… The Insider and (to a lesser extent) The Sixth Sense were nominated. But they had to share that honor with the likes of The Cider House Rules, and worst of all, The Green Mile. With all the original, and in many cases downright revolutionary movies on offer in 1999, the Oscars fell for mostly underwhelming ones.

Even though the winner that year, American Beauty, is derided today as a dated celebration of entitled suburban Boomer male narcissism, it was considered a pretty radical choice for the top prize back then.

My point in bringing all this up is to remind us of a time when an embarrassment of riches ended up being, in a way, too much to handle for Academy voters. That much innovation probably spread out the vote and only landed a Best Director nomination for Spike Jonze here, a Best Adapted Screenplay notice for Election there, and so on. It’s possible we’re looking at a similar situation now. 2018 certainly saw a number of exciting, forward-thinking, challenging movies that will stand the test of time, but to the average Academy voter, there were just too many weird and intimidating films that don’t fit the mold of what they’re comfortable voting for.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs did a lot to diversify the voting membership of the Academy after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. There are more women and nonwhite Academy voters than ever before, and their average age is the lowest in decades. But that “Old Guard” didn’t go away. They may not be the sole representation of the Academy anymore, but they’re still a significant portion of it. How do you think Darkest Hour made it last year? Or Hacksaw Ridge the year before that?

If you’re trying to imagine them perusing the award-winning films from last year, just picture your grandparents evaluating them (this thought experiment probably only works if you’re white). Would they go for a queer dark comedy like The Favourite? How would they respond to a severe and unabashedly polemic environmental screed inside a crisis-of-faith drama like First Reformed? Or a progressive film from predominantly nonwhite creative teams with provocative things to say about race like Black Panther, Blindspotting, Bodied, If Beale Street Could Talk, BlacKkKlansman, The Hate U Give, Sorry To Bother You, and wow, we had a lot of good movies exploring that subject in 2018, didn’t we?

And no, of course I’m not saying every single older white moviegoer is scared of genuinely challenging and unique movies. But most of them who are in the Academy do have that aversion. It’s why we keep seeing forgettable, and sometimes just plain bad, but “safe” movies continue to coast through awards seasons seemingly every year. It wasn’t that long ago, remember, that a perceived frontrunner called Brokeback Mountain ended up falling short of making history as the first LGBT Best Picture winner after several Academy voters openly refused to even watch the film.

This time around, the contender that caters to their tastes better than any other is, like it or not, Green Book. It tacitly absolves them of their culpability and perpetuation of systemic injustices that persist to this day, stars two respected actors, centers on male bonding while the women are relegated to supportive wife roles, doesn’t do anything radical with the medium, you get the idea. It’s the only “traditional Oscar movie” from last year they feel that can still latch on to.

Of course, if that bloc of voters wanted to come together for a traditional “Oscar movie” that’s actually good, they could just support First Man

Nevertheless, I still think a “backlash” (which is really just another word for “scrutiny” in most cases) is warranted, especially when the most pointed observations have come from still-underrepresented critics of color. If a movie is going to win literally the most coveted prize of the entire film industry, we damn well better have a serious conversation about whether or not it really is the “best motion picture of the year.” Especially since the angry defensiveness coming from its fans says as much about the movie as the criticism of its mangling of history and weird thematic hypocrisies. I’m not going to name names here, but it’s not a coincidence that the Oscar pundits who are most aggressively trying to shut down any negative criticism of Green Book are among the “Old Guard” who have been at this beat the longest, and I can’t help but wonder if they would have been just as dismissive of those asking tough questions about Driving Miss Daisy or Forrest Gump if social media was a thing back in those days. Tough questions, mind you, that have been vindicated over time. The Academy can’t go back and change perceived mistakes of the past. Once a winner is crowned, that’s it. We can only make those serious evaluations and have those tough conversations in the moment. If Green Book can’t even handle those right now, imagine how well it’s going to hold up in a decade.

Oh, and you know who else loves Green Book? The 32 Million Dollar Man. Do you really want to be on his side during this whole debate?