Oscars Play it Safe with Green Book
Written by: Andrew McGowan
Illustration by: Raine Raynor
The 91st Academy Awards were riddled with conflict and controversy from before Hollywood Boulevard even rolled out its red carpet for the event on February 24th. With their host Kevin Hart stepping down due to homophobic tweets, a majority of projects baring topical political overtones, and nearly every category having some sort of real-life drama behind the scenes, the Oscars were bound to throw some spice into the evening. As per usual, this year’s most competitive category was Best Picture, where the nominees each stood out in their own ways, creating a diverse collection of films in all senses of the word.
For starters, this year’s nominees covered vast genres from musical (A Star Is Born), to biopic (Bohemian Rhapsody), to comedy (Vice) and more. On a commercial side, they also spread from blockbuster franchise hits like Marvel’s Black Panther to limited-release foreign films like Netflix’s Roma. Meanwhile, the styles ranged from satirical in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman to heritage-based in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite.
In a more literal sense, the movies also dealt with diversity rather transparently through their narratives and themes. With the exception of A Star Is Born, all eight of the nominees focused on marginalized identities in one way or another. Roma brought the story of a lower-class Mexican woman to the screen; both Bohemian Rhapsody and The Favourite both focused on homosexuality; and Green Book, Black Panther, and BlacKkKlansman all dealt with racial relations. Even Vice, while not focusing directly on any specific group, told a story aiming to destabilize politics-as-usual and give voice to underrepresented perspectives.
Needless to say, with so many movies addressing so many issues in so many different ways, none of the nominees entered the Dolby Theater without some sort of criticism on their back. Some accused Vice and BlacKkKlansman of being too radical, of A Star Is Born being too cliché, and of Bohemian Rhapsody being too divergent from Freddie Mercury’s true experiences. Some saw it as blasphemous to nominate a superhero movie like Black Panther, and others saw it as inappropriate to nominate a limited-release Netflix original like Roma. Nevertheless, as the Awards came to a close and all of the nominees sat white-knuckled, actress Julia Roberts took the stage and announced that the Oscar goes to… Green Book.
Peter Farrelly’s Green Book may not have been the critics’ choice for Best Picture. Despite it getting positive reviews, it did not get the same immediate or ecstatic praise as some of its fellow nominees. While it won best Musical/Comedy at the Golden Globes earlier this year, few probably expected that it would resurface at the Oscars, even if it did receive nominations in Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen) and Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), and won Best Original Screenplay (Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie). Despite all of this, many were still surprised to hear Julia Roberts announce Green Book’s title after opening the sacred red envelope.
Compared to its competition, Green Book was criticized for being too tame. The movie was directly about race relations and the friendship created between Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali’s respectively while and black characters as they travel through the American south in 1962. However, it lacked the radicalness of BlacKkKlansman or Black Panther. Green Book opted for a far-more old school story, with more traditional Hollywood structure and narrative. For some, this may have seemed more palatable, but for others, it may have seemed too conservative.
BlacKkKlansman director Spike Lee was certainly among that latter crowd. During an interview following the Awards, between sips of campaign, Lee compared Green Book to Driving Miss Daisy, a dated 1990 film about the bond between an old white woman and her black chauffeur. Lee indignantly claimed that the two films were the same movie about a white savior archetype, but Green Book simply switched the seats around in the car.
Nevertheless, Green Book is certainly a large step up from Driving Miss Daisy, at least from a societal standpoint. Switching the seats in the car is not an insubstantial change. By having the white character being the chauffeur and the black character being the employer, it severely challenges socio-racial expectations, especially in a 1962 setting. Likewise, although Viggo Mortensen is easily the star of the film, the movie does not underplay the significance of black identity in Mahershala Ali’s character, who must cope with the fact that his line of work—performing classical music—combined with the color of his skin makes him estranged in white and black communities. On top of that, queer identities also makes up one of the movie’s layered sub-themes. It may not be as present as the racial themes, but it is nonetheless important for a contemporary audience to see represented on screen. After all, Green Book was based on a true story and was written in part by Nick Vallelonga—Viggo Mortensen’s character’s son—so its details must have a degree of authenticity, especially when it comes to the characters.
At last, whatever Green Book may have lacked in daringness, it certainly made up for in humor, charm, and talent. While sharing a compelling story, the movie is also an absolute stitch. It might make the audience cry, but it will make it laugh just as hard with witty dialogue, fun gags, and countless relatable moments. All politics aside, the movie can still grip viewers with its timeless messages of love, family, and friendship persisting against all odds. Then, the all-star performances from Mortensen and Ali are the cherries on top of the whole production. The two share a great rhythm and chemistry that maintains throughout the entire film. Maybe Green Book isn’t the movie that will start a revolution or turn the world upside down, but it still remains a fantastic piece of cinema. As Peter Farrelly stated in film’s acceptance speech, “the whole story is about love… about love of each other despite our differences.” For a movie to be Oscar-worthy, sometimes that’s all it takes.