There’s a running joke about the regional political coverage the New York Times has served up since Trump took office, which often involves profiling the president’s supporters in small or rural towns. These voters are asked, again and again, in every possible way, whether they care about the many shitty, destructive things that Trump has said and done. They never do! But the journalistic need to understand (or maybe “diagnose”) their worldview keeps the reporters coming back to hear the same answers.
Likewise, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a history of repeating itself whenever we ask it to consider the state of race in film. Every dozen years or so, they choose a Best Picture with a mawkish take on America’s racial divisions, from Forrest Gump to Crash and, most recently, Green Book, which MEL film critic Tim Grierson identified as a kind of “blandly inspirational” overcoming-our-differences movie you’ve seen plenty of times before. The win may not have been so insulting had it not come after a banner year for black directors: Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman were also nominees, while the satire Sorry to Bother You is likely to be a cult classic, and If Beale Street Could Talk has cemented Barry Jenkins’ status as a brilliant auteur.
In the midst of this creative abundance and risk-taking, the top Hollywood prize went to a retread that played it safe — made principally by, and implicitly for, white people.
So why did Green Book (and its spiritual predecessors) emerge victorious? You could easily point the finger at the Academy itself, which is overwhelmingly white, old and male, and continues to make “retro” picks despite some newfound diversity and recognition for people of color in the industry. Many have observed that Green Book can even feel like a product of the era in which it’s set (the 1960s), and elderly voters’ nostalgia for a gentler (whitewashed) look at racial friction can’t be overestimated. But the film didn’t just strike a chord with them. Though hardly a box-office smash, it was a crowd-pleaser: On Rotten Tomatoes, Green Book scored a mediocre 79 percent with critics, while an impressive 93 percent of audience feedback was on the positive side.
This might strike you as weird if you, like me, were following Oscars chatter on Twitter, which experienced a communal meltdown when Green Book was named Best Picture. But think for a second: If you bought a ticket to see it, you knew exactly what you were getting — again, it relies on a tested formula — and that you were bound to have a good time. Meanwhile, an active Twitter user was more likely to be aware of and sensitive to the various backlashes against the movie: Actor Mahershala Ali apologized to the family of Dr. Don Shirley, the pianist he played, for what they saw as a misrepresentation of the man’s life. Screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, the son of Tony Lip, portrayed by Viggo Mortensen, caught flak for a 2015 tweet that reiterated an Islamophobic lie pushed by Donald Trump. Mortensen himself dropped the N-word in a panel Q&A, for some reason. And director Peter Farrelly had to atone for an old habit of whipping his dick out at work as a “joke.” All this context meant many of us — myself included — were more than willing to ignore Green Book altogether, hence the fandom’s current talking point: The detractors, they say, haven’t seen what they’re condemning.
Fans’ resentment at the film’s critics — and supposed “PC culture” in general — may have actually given Peter Farrelly’s Oscar campaign a boost. The New York Times talked to one Academy Awards voter, a “studio executive in his 50s,” who “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.” The movie simply made voters feel good, the Times reported.
This separation between people who cared about Green Book’s provenance or offscreen politics versus its actual content became even more pronounced when I brought the movie up on Facebook. “I liked it in that it had great music, great acting and great casting,” said Tom, an older former co-worker. “The plot was a bit predictable and rosy. It reminded me of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Andrey, an acquaintance closer to my age, remarked, “I dunno why people are beefin with a good movie.” Both of these guys, it bears mentioning, are white, though Doug, a black classmate from high school, also weighed in: “I thought it was cool,” he commented at first.
Yet Doug went on to critique Green Book for the controversy with the Shirley family, for barely dealing with the piece of writing from which it takes its title, and for rehashing “the story about the racist guy who finally sees the humanity in the black human they finally were forced to give a shit about.” Even so, he said, “it was well acted and it was cute. I didn’t hate it. It made me smile in the way that white saviors make people smile. A half smile with an eye roll.” His gloss reminded me of a review that Monique Judge wrote for The Root, in which she grappled with the considerable flaws of the film but still found things to like about it: “It was funny in the right places, touching in the right places, and even as it erases the true ugliness of racism in its depiction, it provides something of a starting point for white people to wake up,” she concluded. In other words, perhaps not Best Picture material, but not as revolting as one might assume.
Still, the movie’s most committed boosters — the people who say they love it — appear to be (mostly) white, and more than that, invested in the narrative arc of the white lead. They’re also indifferent to or confused about issues that others have taken with the circumstances of its production. And they are particularly enamored of Green Book’s uplifting “message” on the possibility of racial harmony, which is starkly at odds with, for example, the finale of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman — a disturbing montage of video from the 2017 white supremacist marches in Charlottesville.
In avoiding any uncomfortable observation of current racial enmity, Green Book did bridge a gap, just not the one it pretends to: It could be the only non-superhero film of 2018 that the right and left can agree on. “My Republican uncle really liked it,” said Steve, another Facebook friend, while some have noticed its popularity with “middle-aged liberals” and skewered its pandering to whites who manage to sound racially tone-deaf right when they think they’re being progressive. Green Book equally appeals to a dude who sneers at the “Hollywood elite” and a grandpa who’s tired of the “polarized” nation under Trump. Probably because for either one, race is not a matter of life and death, struggle and oppression, but of mild social discomfort. They’re happy to receive a cliché lesson on equality, provided it doesn’t judge white America too harshly.
That small, superficial agreement isn’t so horrendous — it’s just familiar and disappointing. As with Green Book itself, the problems here lie outside the theater.