A Night of Uprising and Upset at the 91st Academy Awards
In a night filled with a historic number of Oscar nominations and wins for minorities, the pinnacle award for the night was a disappointment to many viewers.
Most of the night went exceedingly well in terms of equal representation, including wins for Black Panther’s costume designer Ruth E. Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler, Regina King’s win for Best Supporting Actress in If Beale Street Could Talk, Mahershala Ali’s second win for Best Supporting Actor in The Green Book, Spike Lee’s award for BlacKkKlansman’s script, Alfonso Cuarón winning Best Foreign Film, Best Cinematography and Best Director for Roma, Rami Malek’s win for Best Actor in Bohemian Rhapsody, Bao directors Domee Shi and Becky Neiman-Cobb winning Best Animated Short, Period. End of Sentence. helmer Rayka Zehtabchi’s win for Best Live-Action Short, Free Solo filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s win for Best Documentary Feature, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse co-director Peter Ramsey’s win for Best Animated Feature. Even the award presenters were diverse, with 29 of the 52 non-white.
However, once Best Film was awarded to Green Book, the tone of the night shifted. In a film that fits a narrative on race relations better for the 1960s than in the present, Green Book is often touted as the story of a white and black man becoming friends despite their disparate experiences (however, Mahershala Ali’s character was deemed a supporting character in this discussion of race).
The “character arc” of Tony Vallelonga is that of the classic white savior: he helps his pianist employer DC Shirley avoid a beating before explaining to Shirley that he, Vallelonga, is “blacker” than Shirley because he likes Little Richard and Aretha Franklin. A problematic take on race in America that claims progressivism is not the only problem surrounding this film, with one writer criticized for making Islamophobic comments, another writer accused of sexual misconduct, and main actor Viggo Mortensen using a racial slur during a press tour to promote the film.
Mahershala Ali had to apologize to his character Don Shirley’s actual family after the family’s displeasure with the film’s interpretation of Shirley. After winning the award, Green Book producers Jim Burke and Charles B. Wessler and director Peter Farrelly also did not thank Ali’s character Don Shirley in their speech.
Green Book’s win does not come as too much of a surprise when looking at the demographics of the Academy’s voting committee. With nearly 8,000 voters, only about 38% of the voters identify as women and 16% of voters belong to a a racial minority group (as of 2018). Although this is an increase compared to earlier years, a deficiency in diverse perspectives limits the Academy from receiving an honest and holistic understanding of race and representation in film. It allows most voters to lean into a vision of interracial harmony that isn’t too progressive or upsetting.
Following the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that has plagued the Academy for the past few years for its lack of black nominees, this win is a slap in the face for those critical of the Academy’s attempts at inclusion. Many have argued that if the Academy was eager to award a film addressing race relations in America, it should have looked to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, which won Lee his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
BlacKkKlansman focuses on a black cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan to gain intelligence. Many argue this film explores themes of racism, bigotry, and what it means to be black in the 70’s with more nuance and insight than Green Book. Lee himself was upset at Green Book’s win, and attempted to walk out of the room at the announcement to discuss the mistake made by the Academy stating: "I thought it was courtside at the Garden, and the ref made a bad call."
For a full list of the nominees and winners of the 91st Academy Awards, click here.
Images via: cover photo, Leading/Supporting Actors/Actress Winners, Alfonso Cuarón, Hannah Beachler, Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson, Domee Shi and Becky Neiman-Cobb, Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse winners, Green Book.