The lead characters of the Green Book looking back from a rearview mirror

How the Oscars Got It Wrong*

* Or what the Oscars shows us about the insufferable self-congratulatory white people who desperately want credit for fighting bigotry without actually doing anything in any meaningful way whatsoever

One thinks of how interesting it must be to be Donald Trump, the only president I can recall of who had not just one, but two movies made solely for him. Along with being instructional and cautionary for regular audiences, these films, Steven Spielberg’s tepid paean to Doing Your Fucking Job (The Post) and Spike Lee’s darkly comic protest joint (BlacKkKansman), are aimed directly at that dense Cheeto-dusted pile of shit in hopes of jarring loose some kind of base awareness of human empathy and understanding of the people in the country he is responsible for protecting. Predictably, Trump’s grease-filled brainspace shat out another baffling retort in response, this time after Lee’s acceptance speech last night for his Best Adapted Screenplay win.

Here’s Lee’s full speech; you’ll note that he never mentions Trump by name, only encouraging more activism and inclusiveness in voters in the upcoming 2020 cycle. Trump’s reply has all the greatest hits that have become the hallmark of his abject embarrassment of a presidency and especially his spats with black public figures–as derogatory remarks about their intelligence, unfounded projection of things he is guilty of tenfold, and esoteric allusions to things he takes credit for doing.1 I’m not going to go into all the different ways that Trump is, in fact, not the greatest president for black people--or any other minorities–because that’s a different article, or a library of hardbound collections of articles, generated by many others.

What I am up to, however, is pointing out how intertwined our popular culture is with our national identity politics, and why the Oscars have painted themselves into a very familiar, very old, very white corner in regards to the types of minority representation they’re comfortable with rewarding. Let us consider the figures, first. While it’s true that since the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) has increased membership across both gender and ethnic minority lines, the statistics are still appalling. As of last season, only 28% of the Academy was female (contrasted to roughly 51% of the US population), only 13% of the membership was non-white (versus 39% of the country), and in 2013 (the last year for which data is available) the average age was 63. In short, our biggest and ostensibly most important award of the year is still being decided by a largely male, largely white, largely older body of voters. And as we all know, old white men–as a group–are complete and utter racist, sexist, homophobic gobshite idiots who couldn’t find their ass in the dark, let alone actively try to encourage inclusiveness by rewarding marginalized communities for telling their own stories.

The Best Picture win for Green Book seems like only another damning bit of evidence to throw on the pile that argues that the only thing that these obsolete wastes of human tissue love more than making media that only pretends to engage with real problems is taking credit for solving those problems within that space. The last few years have been goddamn littered with this kind of back-patting congratulatory bullshit made almost wholly by people outside the depicted communities:

Green Book

The Post

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbings, Missouri

Hidden Figures

La La Land

The Imitation Game

American Sniper

Dallas Buyers’ Club

Silver Linings Playbook

Lincoln

The Help

The Danish Girl

The Kids Are Alright

Bohemian Rhapsody

The Blind Side

Avatar

Crash

Transamerica

A Beautiful Mind

Brokeback Mountain

Slumdog Millionaire

What do all these films have in common? They’re films that tackle major social issues without the slightest bit of creative involvement and understanding from the communities they profess to portray, or, they’re films that tell stories about oppressed groups through the eyes of white savior archetypes. Or, like Dallas Buyers Club, they’re both. Also, and most importantly, these are all Best Picture and Best Actor nominees.

The 1989 film Driving Miss Daisy was about the unlikely friendship between a racist elderly white lady and her kindly black chauffeur, and has gone on to be an emblematic example of the worst kind of smug, middlebrow excreta the Academy gobbles up like some kind of mad coprophage. Driving Miss Daisy and any film like it says absolutely nothing of substance and understands virtually nothing of the struggles and effects of racism on the lives of the people who endure it beyond the notion of “racism = bad!” What this type of film does understand implicitly are the minds of Boomer-aged White America, a generational monolith that craves stories that assure them that racial inequity has only ever been caused only by blatant, garish evils like Hitler and the Klan, that the only way through those troubled times was by the leadership and advice of White America, and that these poor oppressed minorities needed (and still need) to admit that they’re part of the problem, too. Somehow. The perfect irony here being in 1989 Spike Lee also released a film, Do the Right Thing, that explored the racial tensions in the overlapping ethnic neighborhoods of modern-day New York City, making 1989 and 2019 both years that Lee lost out on awards and nominations to films about white people in the 1960s driving around in cars with black folks and learning about racism, an irony that was not lost on him.

The message sent here is clear. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman attacked racist institutions head-on while demonstrating how racism’s insidiousness affects us all and arguing merely not actively participating in bigotry doesn’t absolve those who don’t stand against it; Peter Farrelly (director of that one movie where Cameron Diaz uses Ben Stiller’s ear-dangling cum as hair gel)’s Green Book explores the social dynamics between a white guy and the black PhD he has to teach how to eat fried chicken and act more like a macho tough guy–classic black guy problems. This is the natural escalation of Marvin Berry telling his cousin all about that snappy Marty McFly kid; in the next bit of Boomer-pandering Oscar-bait, we’ll see white guys take credit for creating soul food or hip-hop or black kids being good at sports2

.The list of recent nominees–as well as the films not nominated–shows the extent of their desire for truly inclusive cinema. Groundbreaking LGBTQ films like Tangerine and Blue is the Warmest Color ran amok through their award seasons with BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Independent Spirit nominations, while the AMPAAS disdainfully looked away and nominated more mainstream fare where any queer roles went to straight talent and input from the community was not desired or solicited. Bohemian Rhapsody’s story was openly disdainful of frontman Freddie Mercury’s life outside the band and implied his death from AIDS was a punishment for his sexuality, and Dallas Buyers’ Club director Jean-Marc Vallée said he didn’t even know any transgender actors existed, but it never stopped him from feeling confident to tell the story of trans sex workers during the HIV epidemic of the 1980s.

This is what the Academy–a body composed mostly of old white men–wants: the appearance of liberal social views without actually having to engage with marginalized people or their stories. They want this so they can congratulate themselves on how woke they are to other old white guys, and the circle jerk keeps a’ turnin’, making sanitized stories for sanitized audiences who create sanitized award shows. They don’t want to see stories about how Boomers are responsible and intertwined with everything from the lastest rise of fascism to wage inequality to global warming, because the truth is simpler and worse: they just don’t fucking care. These are still the same crusty old white sons of bitches who didn’t do shit about Woody Allen, didn’t do fuck-all about Roman Polanski, didn’t do a goddamned thing about Kevin Spacey, didn’t care about nominating Bryan Singer’s movie this year, didn’t raise one single fucking finger about that fucking human pig shit motherfucker Harvey Weinstein treating every woman in town like his own personal call girl, and still hasn’t rescinded the memberships of any of those unctuous weeping ostomy bags. These are not good people. So let’s not suddenly expect the people awarding themselves to start policing themselves overnight. Instead, we need to start seriously reevaluating the role and heft and prestige the Academy plays in our critical praise metrics. By simply renaming the Academy to something more descriptive, it changes the way we might appreciate their valuation:

Green Book poster with the caption "One white man’s life-changing journey of having to spend a few days with a black dude", and "WINNER! - Best Picture - Academy of White Granddads"

Let’s rewind a minute and go back to the run up to #OscarsSoWhite, though, because it’s an important turning point in what’s going on with the Academy. After the backlash caused by the scant nominations of deserving people of color, the AMPAAS did damage control in some noticeably front-facing ways: it increased POC and female membership invitees, it broadened the voting to allow more films into contention, and it even installed a new president who was both female and black (Cheryl Boone Isaacs) who pledged a commitment to bringing more diversity into the membership body. On the surface, this has been a success; since Isaac’s tenure, the Academy has nominated more POC performances and has seen growth in the membership of POC and women members. However, as we can see with films like Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, they don’t really have any real commitment to rewarding stories and performances from narratives that challenge their worldview. Consider this year’s eventually-rescinded proposal to create a “Most Popular Film” award at the ceremonies–a move that many (rightly) saw as a desperate chance to gain relevancy and award films like Black Panther without having to justify their artistic merits. These dudes just want to be seen doing The Right Thing™, and it’s such a hilarious microcosm of their own egotistical dysfunction; they want to be seen as champions and agents of equality, but they don’t actually want to do any of the work–just like the fucking movies and performances they love to nominate! “I don’t want to have to watch all these movies where networks of old white dudes are the enemy of progress, can’t we just make up a brand new award? Like “Best Minority” something? I’m not a racist, some of my favorite films are black movies.”

Despite the outward image of Hollywood glamour being typified by progressive activism, we must remember that at its heart is a system of very wealthy, mostly white people who do not want instability; no industry is as fearful and impotent in the face of change as media, and no one hates being exposed for their hypocrisy like the affluent. Progressivism and activism is just the clothing they wear to blend in with normal human beings, and inch by inch these people are having their disguises torn away over their desperate objections. Much like we have in the last few years, we should expect some incremental facile changes in the Academy’s processes preceded by magnanimous announcements of how they’re yet again living up to their responsibility as the leading inclusive body of artistic merit. We’ll see a few more nominations of left-of-center films and performances, we may see the nominations of underrepresented minorities (Asian, transgender, or disabled actors, et al), and we’ll definitely continue to see lots of self-generated media attention about how bigoted they aren’t. Real change, however, won’t come until two very simple things happen:

  • Films and performances that traditionally make older, white audiences uncomfortable routinely are nominated and win. This means films about intersectional disparity, wage inequality, and corporate-driven systems of oppression getting viewership among the people these movies seek to vilify and wake up to the harm of their actions.
  • Films and performances that follow in the mold of that large list above–films that coddle white America and misrepresent struggles of minorities by ignoring those who live them–stop being rewarded for their backward, regressive, and harmful views.

The Academy isn’t woke until it starts routinely admitting that the people in its overwhelming majority–the old white cowards who don’t like to be told how they keep making problems worse–are part of the problem. I don’t see that happening, sadly, as that is a problem of self-awareness and integrity, which historically White America has in short supply.

In that vein, I offer this: a list of films from 2018 that the Academy could have honored if they were as genuine as they would like to suggest in their intention to reward high-quality films and performances that challenged social norms:

  • Sorry to Bother You – A roller-coaster absurdist agitprop comedy in the David Gordon Green-meets-Terry Gilliam-if-Gilliam-actually-was-talented slant, this movie deals with the difficulties of black identity, artistic integrity, collective action, and poverty in a world where individual greed of the wealthy is masked behind PR doublespeak.
  • Blindspotting – A buddy comedy that unfolds into a sober reflection on how race still divides us when we’re living the same lives, and how that keeps hurting us when we don’t acknowledge disparity and privilege.
  • The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased – Two films that explore the effects of harmful patriarchal expectations on children who are deemed unfit for their native culture due to their immutable sexual identities and reactions to the abuse heaped upon them in efforts to force conformity upon them.
  • Disobedience – A film that explores the trauma internalized by queer people who chose their own happiness and self-acceptance over their rigid community that demonizes them.
  • Assassination Nation – The men of a sleepy New England community become enraged and attack a group of young women who may or may not be responsible for airing secrets that threaten their identities of “normal” cishet conformity.
  • Annihilation – A female-driven, dreamy, lyrical sci-fi journey into explorations of personal and community identity and what it means to become aware of the transformative affect the outside world has upon you.
  • Love, Simon – An examination of what happens in the chaotic world of teenage life when you proudly accept your gay identity.

That may not seem like a lot, and maybe you didn’t hear about many of them, but consider: the Academy nominated eight films for Best Picture this year, and only three of them engaged with progressive mores in any real overt way–BlacKkKlansman, Roma, and The Favourite, which means we got treated to a majority of nominees that were just… bullshit films. Most of these were films that either didn’t have anything terribly meaningful to say (A Star is Born, Black Panther), or films that toyed with progressive ideals in the aforementioned cowardly old white person fashion that is made only for an audience of the unoppressed (Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book). Meaning, the Academy isn’t at a dearth of films to honor; fuck, some of the films on my list are releases teeming with Oscar darlings like Nicole Kidman and Rachel Weisz! Meaning, the Academy is straight-up ignoring these films because they’re uncomfortable to their hetero, white, male, boomer, monied interests.

Cinema that moves society in the right direction is out there. It’s well-made, featuring popular talent, and released relatively broadly. The only reasonable conclusion is the Academy doesn’t honor these films because they just don’t fucking want to. Until they do, there’s no use in pretending the Academy is any meaningful barometer of progressive artistic ideals.

Trump’s remarks to Spike Lee belie the state of our national divide, I fear, as a minority activist calling for understanding and empathy being met with angry accusations of racism is a sad reflection of the oppositional positions we find ourselves in. It’s the kind of world where a film like Green Book can win: a movie made by white people about a white man’s experience watching bigotry affect others from the outside, winning an award from other white people and patting itself on the head for doing such a good job and being so helpful.

I know we’re not alone in understanding this.

What worries me is the rippling effect these kinds of awards may have in our broader collective media awareness. Snagging a Best Picture nomination gets you extra attention from moviegoers who may not otherwise have sought those films out; for one thing, award nominees tend to get a victory lap in the cinemas when the ceremonies draw near. People who make their box office selections through a desire to keep up with topical conversation may also be, in my concern, the kind of people who also give more weight to the views espoused in those films. If you’re the kind of passive fence-rider who doesn’t know if they want to see a film until it’s nominated for something, you might be feel the same about your politics, and I worry that these people seeing this kind of wrong-headed equivacating will take those messages home and to heart. If you’re the kind of person who takes comfort in being told that oppressed minorities need white leadership, or that “everyone is responsible for racism,” you’re going to come away from these films thinking that you’re as liberal and progressive as Hollywood–the place right-wing media would convince you is a den of hedonistic libertine communists–thinks you should be. This is how you get people like my grandmother, who think they can’t possibly be racist because their housekeeper is black. My grandmother loves Driving Miss Daisy, by the way.

Extrapolating this concern to the polls, rewarding this kind of self-congratulatory blame-shifting version of liberalism is naturally going to set up a generational conflict between older voters and the Gen-X/Millennial/Tide Pod blocs, who statistically see issues of social inequality from a much more intersectional point of view. Younger voters tend to back candidates with vastly more radical platforms on everything from race to wages to the environment, so when primary season rolls around (and it won’t be long, god help us), what kinds of schisms will this embrace of mealy-mouthed quasi-liberalism cause for a country that already seems at a tipping point? Can we survive it?

I’m honestly not sure.

Footnotes

  1. In fairness, Trump deserves credit for not opposing criminal justice sentencing reform, even though he got the idea from Kim Kardashian, the wife of his Best Black Friend, Kanye West. I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth too hard on this. You know, despite the fact that he never ran on the issue, and that it’s long been a Democratic campaigning point, and even his own super-racist Justice Department opposed the reforms. Just saying. Take our victories where we can. It’s fucking rough out there right now. Thank you, Mrs. Kardashian, legitimately.
  2. Such as, The Blind Side. And Blue Chips. And The Air Up There. And Wildcats. And etc.

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