Spike Lee has built his career on asking audiences what it means to Do The Right Thing. So, his swift exit from the Oscars auditorium on Sunday evening after Green Book was announced as Best Picture made his intended statement all the more clear: the Academy did not.
Despite our creative differences, Lee is right on this one. Because winning film Green Book, which documents the relationship of a black musician and his white driver in the American south of the 1960s, belongs in a different time. It’s a simplistic depiction of racism, and, once again, falls prey to the lazy trope of telling a story of racism through a white character’s eyes – something I thought we might have left behind a decade ago with The Secret Life Of Bees and The Help. It also plays into a white saviour complex by centring the film’s whole premise on white protagonist Tony’s transformation. Overall, the film fails to make waves in its commentary on race in America.
BlacKkKlansman, which was also nominated in the Best Picture category, suffered from similar problems, with a message as laboured as its stylised title. It sits in a similar position to Green Book in situating racism in a distant time that’s more comfortable for white viewers to digest. I struggled through its clumsy final montage, which concludes with the painstaking, on-the-nose final frame of an upside-down, monochrome American flag. The symbolism doesn’t really pull any punches for audiences used to a 24-hour news cycle and the film’s ultimate message seems to be “guess what, in case you hadn’t noticed, racism still exists in America today”. But at least the takeaway isn’t inaccurate.
Green Book’s palatability is what makes this film so frustrating, framing racism as a thing of the past, practically solved between the two characters the film focuses on. In a metaphorical contrast to Klansman’s ending, Green Book’s final scene wraps with a huge, literal pat on the back, as if to gratuitously say “case closed”, or perhaps the all-too-familiar “racism can be conquered by love”.
But the issue with the win isn’t just about criticising Green Book’s story – the narrative arc is not a crime, just a partially whitewashed, overly-saccharine story that doesn’t grapple with much relevant to 2019. But criticism for its win stems partly from how narratives actually told by black people are continually overlooked.
Green Book’s cast and crew were overwhelmingly white, and the famous “n-word” controversy surrounding the film definitely started it off on a bad foot. To make matters worse, black protagonist Don’s real life family publicly condemned the film, with his brother saying the very premise of a friendship between the protagonists was inaccurate, and that they hadn’t been notified about the potential for a film until after it was completed. The film is on the terms of white filmmakers, and seems to barely attempt to incorporate the perspectives of people of colour, even those actually involved in the true story.
Black people deserve to be able to shape their own narratives. While a monopoly on stories might not be the answer, it seems notable who is lauded for setting the agenda on race. When white creatives tell stories about race, the message is ultimately for white audiences, not for people of colour. Perhaps the most painful images emerging from the night were those of Green Book’s makers, which really do speak a thousand words.
Complete takedowns of the Oscars can be overly-simplistic. It’s important to celebrate the fact that the makeup of Best Picture nominees was broader than ever, and black stories and black talent were strongly represented. And yes, we have come some way since #OscarsSoWhite. But, we have further to go still, and the issue lies in changing the structure of the institution.
At a time in which the issue of representation is moving up the agenda, it’s worth remembering that the makeup of the Academy is not representative. Although the institution has made considerable efforts to increase the number of women and people of colour admitted since 2015, the group’s fundamental structure is still famously exclusive; new members have to be sponsored by two existing members to enter, within an industry that already has a diversity and inclusion problem.
While we can’t know for certain what went wrong this year, we do know that the Academy has spent four years making some effort to dig itself out of a deep hole when it comes to institutional racism. What we also know is that black people across creative industries are trying to articulate complex lived realities, to lay out stories that are sometimes difficult, traumatic, personal and poignant. We’re trying to speak up. But the only way things will ever change is if people listen.