This was a mixed bag of a night for the 91st Oscars, and it will certainly spawn conversation for weeks on end. Rather than just rag on the things they did, of which there are several, I want to be mostly positive about this night. It does a disservice to great people who finally earned the prizes they deserved to dwell too much on the bad. So I will sandwich that in the middle, under “The Green Book of It All” section. If you want to skip, I don’t blame you, but I want to be far more positive than most of my colleagues right now. Let’s celebrate!
Best Winners of the Night
There are plenty of positives to celebrate, so let’s jump over to that side of the discussion. If you were hoping for representation among the filmmakers tonight, it was there in bunches. Even in the problematic films, this does build a positive to look forward to in the Academy.
The first great thing about tonight is that Spike Lee has an Oscar. His speech was as great as we’d hoped, and he owned the moment. For a career as storied as Spike’s, this moment was essential. It was important that this filmmaker, whose works include some of the greatest films of the past thirty years, receive real recognition from the Academy. Do The Right Thing, 25th Hour, Inside Man, Malcolm X, He Got Game, Summer of Sam, 4 Little Girls, When The Levees Broke, and She’s Gotta Have It established his might. BlacKkKlansman joins that list, and it was the perfect film to reward him for after all these years.
If you don’t believe this will motivate Spike to get back in the game as soon as possible, trust me, he’s already planning his revenge. He got this film because of Jordan Peele and Jason Blum, and those two guys are going to do everything in their power to find him his next great work. He might even write his own story again. His next film on IMDb is called Da 5 Bloods and follows Vietnam vets returning to the jungles to find their innocence. With Chadwick Boseman, Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, and Jean Reno already attached, he could be back sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile, Black Panther broke more barriers for superhero films. The previous record for the most Oscar wins by a superhero film belonged to The Dark Knight with two (Supporting Actor & Sound Editing). While comparing different years and contexts can be difficult, Black Panther‘s wins for Costume, Production Design, and Original Score move the needle. The path for more superhero Best Picture nominations comes through this road. Yet more important than future Oscars movies was a validation of this film. It was one of the year’s best by any metric, and its work transported us across oceans.
A baffling miss from this year’s nominations was Ryan Coogler, and that man deserves credit for his extraordinary vision. The word auteur gets thrown around too often, especially because it was invented to discuss directors working in the studio system. Yet that is what Coogler has done with Black Panther and Creed before it. If you’ve been paying attention, you watched the birth of someone who will become an all-time director. With three wins on the night, expect Coogler to get the weight to do something incredible his next time out. Hell, Black Panther 2 could become the Godfather Part II of the MCU.
Furthermore, Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler became the first black craftspeople to win an Oscar outside of the acting categories in more than thirty years. They were each the first black craftspeople to win their respective categories. They each got up on the stage and absolutely killed their speeches too. This inspired people tonight, and the next great craftspeople of color were likely watching tonight. Hopefully, they’ll go to work tomorrow with the excitement of knowing they could reach that stage too.
Women were represented in every short film. Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi showcased true grace and poise on the stage. Chin literally put his life on the line to film his friend climbing El Capitan, and the two captured the story brilliantly. Vasarhelyi became one of the female directors on the night to actually win, and her excitement was palpable. While they turn their attention to (literally) more grounded efforts, they remain two of the most essential documentarians in the world.
Finally, one of the late surprises of the evening came with Olivia Colman snatching the Best Actress prize. Literally, no one was more surprised than Colman, and what a win. Her speech was genuine and heartfelt. She’s been a workman’s actress for more than a decade, and her role was nearly untouchable.
When we talk about her win, it will eventually occupy a space near the top of the best of the decade, likely competing with Cate Blanchette in Blue Jasmine for the title. It would have been that discussion all season if it had not been for the poor Glenn Close. Then again, who actually watched The Wife? People will watch this absurdly weird film now, and Colman’s performance from beat to beat is unparalleled. Don’t worry, Colman’s going to be back in our lives very soon for The Crown on Netflix.
The Green Book of It All
There are people in Hollywood that had a great time in the last 24 hours. For about 50% of them, the Peter Farrelly-directed film Green Book rose to the top of their ballot. For the rest of the world, we’re left questioning what the hell just happened. How did we get to a point where 30 years after Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture? How could a definitely lesser version of the same story take home the prize? Well, the truth boils down to a simple fact: the movement to change the Academy did not come soon enough.
There are some defenders of Green Book throughout the internet, and let’s lay out their arguments. To some, Green Book tells the story about overcoming racism in America and works as an excellent buddy story to boot. It provides light in a moment of darkness and shows that people who may not agree can still come together. The movie was written by Nick Vallelonga, the son of Viggo Mortenson‘s character. Mahershala Ali gives an incredible performance, one that was certainly Oscar-worthy (if it had not been in the wrong category).
So the case makes sense on paper. However, there are big issues to address. First, the film features white savior moment after white savior moment. Mortenson constantly rescues Ali, not just from physical dangers, but “from being too uptight.” The Mortenson character is a stereotype itself, speaking in cliches with a ridiculous accent. If it weren’t Mortenson playing Tony, it likely would not have worked on most audiences. Then there are moments the film actively tries to teach Ali “how to be black,” as if there is a thing. As Mortenson rattles off singers that Doc Shirley should listen to, tells him how Italians suffer just as much as black people, or the infamous fried chicken sequences, it is clear there is one thing the movie is comfortable being: a vessel for white people to work out their issues of race.
There’s one major problem with this line of thinking. It strips away the power and agency of Doc Shirley. Rather than making him heroic for even embarking on the trip, the movie makes Mortenson the hero. His decisions are the ones that are placed in the center of the movie, and it is through his actions that Shirley begins to lighten up. Rather than being a person who is proud of his heritage (literally embracing the royalty of his ancestors) this newly transformed version of Shirley is shown as the preferable black person in Green Book.
The film is so retrograde in its depiction of race relations that it stings. This comes on the heels of a season that featured more than a half dozen better films that openly discussed racism in America through honest dialogue. If they wanted a story about a white and black person’s partnership changing the way each looked at racism BlacKkKlansman was in the same category. It may not have given them the warm feelings they got with Green Book, but it was honest and true about this moment. It gave white people a reason to care. BlacKkKlansman gave us skin in the game. Roma was a story about an indigenous housemaid being accepted into a family. Black Panther looked at the effects of colonialism, isolationism, the effects of the war on terror, black empowerment, and even had a white person finding himself bonding with our majority black cast.
Blindspotting discussed an interracial friendship in Oakland. Sorry to Bother You discussed the commodification of people of color in a white-dominated world. The Hate U Give gave power to a young black girl to change the dialogue about race in a small town. Widows featured women of various races fighting back against a rigged system. If Beale Street Could Talk shows the power of hate and discrimination and how love can still persist through that hate. None of these films were nominated for Best Picture. All of them could have been. Half of the should have been.
The fact that the Green Book team never thanked Doc Shirley in their Best Picture acceptance speech makes for a perfectly apt metaphor. Rather than give credit to the man that actually put his life at risk, they literally said this all started with Viggo Mortenson. Not a good look. The message was clear: as long as the story about racism gets told through a white lens, it is acceptable for members of the Academy.
Here’s the thing. I was angry about it at first. I’ll be annoyed about it for the next few weeks. Yet the worst crime about this win is that it undermines the growth we saw from the Academy over the past two years. Green Book will fade from memory, only to be brought up by people trashing the film. It will not be the Crash from this decade because that movie beat one of the truly inspirational and iconic films of the century in Brokeback Mountain. Instead, Green Book will fade from memory. That is a far worse fate.
Also before I forget, a quick word on Bohemian Rhapsody. It only maybe deserved one of the four Oscars it won. The clip they chose for Rami Malek was hilariously bad (he literally didn’t say a word because it was a lip-sync track). Hat tip to Sean Fennessy of The Ringer, who noted the similarities this could have to Adrien Brody for The Pianist. In case you forgot, that movie was also directed by a rapist, won a bunch of awards on the night, and won Best Actor for its Wunderkind star. Since then, Brody essentially disappeared into the background of movies. This might not have been a good thing for Malek in the long run.
My “Favourite” Moments of the Night
Okay, with that done, there were some pretty great nights on the stage. The hostless Oscars meant no time-filling montages, no weird bits that don’t play, and an actual focus on the presenters. It helped the show flow much better, and if they had tightened up the Best Actor, Actress, and Director segments, they might have made it under three hours. Just a thought.
Let’s bullet point some of the other great moments:
- Samuel L. Jackson‘s reaction to giving Spike his Oscar was priceless. That was perfect in every way and embodied the moment for millions. Killer job by the producers to let Jackson be the one at that moment. Brie Larson’s face in that photo is also pretty spectacular.
- Brian Tyree Henry and Melissa McCarthy are amazing comedians. My god. For McCarthy to give up walking the red carpet on a night when she was nominated for Best Actress tells you all about her commitment as an entertainer. Meanwhile, Henry had a massive 2018, with an Emmy nomination, a Tony nomination, and breakthrough film performances to boot. Great stuff from both, and if you weren’t a fan yet, I hope this changed your mind.
- Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph proved why they are three of the best women comedians of all time once again. Seriously Maya needs to get her partner P.T. Anderson to get them a movie with Tiffany Haddish. Like yesterday. It’s always great to see their reunions, and Rudolph stole the show for a minute.
- John Mulaney and Awkwafina were spectacularly up to the moment and had a lot of fun working through their bits. The two stood out, so watch out for the Golden Globes to try to snatch them up for a future hosting gig.
- Bette Midler, Lady Gaga, and Barbra Streisand were all present for one more or another tonight. It was like walking into a weird parallel dimension. Very cool for the Oscars to recognize that all three stars could have a moment in the spotlight.
- The introduction of Roma was beautiful, and this is coming from someone who genuinely doesn’t buy what Diego Luna sells most of the time. However, it was charming as hell, and Chef Jose Andres was extremely sweet.
- Finally, Alfonso Cuarón joins a club of masters with two Best Director wins at Oscar. Weirdly enough, he has never won Best Picture though. The split between Director and Picture has greatened over the past decade. With it becoming a semi-regular occurrence, it adds a level of intrigue to the end of the night moving forward.
With all of that behind us, we can litigate the awards forever. That said, we’re about to enter a new film year with fun and exciting adventures on the horizon. Check back here at We Bought a Blog over the next week as we preview the upcoming year of pop culture excitement.