Living in the heart of L.A., I see giant billboards for every movie that enters the mainstream. I overhear industry people gossiping at the bar at ArcLight Hollywood: whose film is having all the luck, which got buried by a bad release date and tepid reviews. There are arguments on the merits of streaming and what deserves — nay, demands — to be seen on the big screen. The chatter of the city is tied to its defining business, though not always to the larger import of its products. Cinema is, for many, a job as much as it is an art. You talk shop about it.
The role of formally assigning historical and cultural significance to this art, meanwhile, is vested in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In truth, it will be at least a decade before we know which movies, performances and technical achievements have a solid and relevant legacy. But until we adopt my genius idea of an Oscars ceremony honoring films with an added 10 years of hindsight (wouldn’t it be great to get a do-over on 2010? Justice for Jackass 3!), the Academy is stuck guessing what of Hollywood’s most recent output truly matters.
They’re legendarily bad at this, because they’re predominantly old white men — although that’s gradually changing with the addition of younger, more diverse members who offer a different view on the qualities that make a movie worthwhile. Clearly, however, the old guard still has the upper hand. While Parasite just became the first Korean film ever nominated for Best Picture, white male stories overwhelmed all categories, no woman got a Best Director nom and the acting contests are almost entirely white (Cynthia Erivo in Harriet being a predictable exception that has its own weird baggage, while Antonio Banderas straddles the line as Spanish-born, though not a person of color).
Why might the Hollywood power brokers think they could get away with such depressing homogeneity? Well, in the first place, they don’t actually care what you think, and they want to reward big studio productions that made a lot of money. But there could be another factor in play: last year’s infamous Green Book sweep. In fact, the title of the Best Picture winner was trending as we learned who might go on to win big in 2020.
Green Book, a saccharine road-trip drama set in the mid-century American South that MEL film critic Tim Grierson called “the annoyingly adorable puppy of movies,” purported to show a white man and a black man overcoming their differences and attaining the holy grail of interracial friendship. It was also directed, produced and written by white men, and the family of Dr. Donald W. Shirley, the real-life pianist portrayed by Mahershala Ali, condemned it as, among other things, “a symphony of lies,” prompting an apology from Ali.
These troubling details, along with Green Book’s reliance on derided “Magical Negro” tropes, were apparently lost on Academy voters who saw a straightforward and heartwearming tale and placed it high enough on ranked-choice ballots that it eventually came out on top. The backlash to this choice therefore may have had a doubled effect: Not only had members given themselves a pat on the back for honoring a corny movie about race instead of a trenchant one (just as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was overlooked the year Driving Miss Daisy took the top prize, his BlacKkKlansman lost to Green Book), but they lacked any background for understanding the outrage that followed.
So although the new slate of contenders fits a long tradition of shutting women, people of color and the LGBTQ community out of the Oscars race, it’s also probably a recalibration based on the Green Book mess. Put yourself in the shoes of an aging, white Academy member. Since 2000, you’ve maybe thrown your vote to Crash, another cringe-y Best Picture that tackled race relations, as well as stories of non-white and queer suffering coupled with transcendence — Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight. Maybe you looked at the acclaimed movies with real diversity in 2019, like Hustlers, The Farewell, Us, Dolemite Is My Name or The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and you struggled to slot any of them into either of those handy frameworks, meaning you wound up writing them off entirely. After all, you’d given Oscars to a socially conscious movie starring an actor of color last time around, and it just seemed to piss everyone off for some reason! What the hell, nominate Scarlett Johansson twice. It’s not like she’s specifically defended whitewash casting and her right to play marginalized people.
The inner workings of the Academy — and the extent to which they reflect localized behind-the-scenes narratives instead of films’ true impact on the national consciousness — will always remain, in part, a mystery. But, whether overtly or subconsciously, they appear to have delivered a sharp rebuke to the masses who groaned at Green Book’s success: “If you won’t celebrate the stories about race told by and for white people, then we’ll go ahead and forget that people of color even exist, unless they’re literally Harriet Tubman.”
In this, they reaffirm the pat and cloying nature of Green Book itself, which painted racial strife as an issue of the past that can now be performatively resolved, again and again, in pop entertainment. To the voters, this film clearly represented the end of a bygone struggle, and freed them from the obligation to look past their white establishment favorites in the future. Essentially, they took the imperative to “do better” and opted not to try at all. One supposes they imagined they’d already done their best.