The 91st Academy Awards took place just last week. But when Green Book won Best Picture, director Spike Lee stood up from his seat, and left.
On face value, this might look like a fit of arrogance, a fury fuelled by that fact that his own movie BlackkKlansman did not win. Or maybe it would seem he was mad that Green Book wasn’t progressive enough. But why should that matter? Both movies are about racial tensions in America, and both movies are great in their own rights; so on the surface it seems like either should be able to win and promote the Oscar’s newfound ideals regarding diversity. But the Lee’s attempted boycott is grounded in much more than that.
To understand this, we have to look at what happened at the 62nd Academy Awards in 1990. Nominated for Best Picture at the time were Dead Poet’s Society, My Left Foot, Field of Dreams, Born on the Fourth of July, and Driving Miss Daisy. However, that night there was a notable exclusion from the list: Spike Lee’s phenomenal debut movie Do the Right Thing.
This is a phenomenal film whose reputation precedes it. It is considered a staple in the history of American film and one of the greatest films of all time. Set in the Brooklyn suburb of Bedford-Stuyvescent on the hottest day of summer, each of the neighbourhood’s distinct personalities are explored, including Mookie a pizza delivery boy played by Spike Lee, Radio Raheem a huge figure who blasts Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” from a boom box wherever he goes, and many other unique characters. Throughout the movie tensions between the neighbourhood’s personalities boil and eventually escalate resulting in a riot where Radio Raheem is killed in a violent act of police brutality. From just this description, you can understand why the movie has gained such cultural significance; and when the bright hues and stark compositions fill your screen, you can see why it has gained an aesthetic significance too. But this movie was considered largely inflammatory when it came out in 1989, with many reviewers ignorantly stating that it would incite riots amongst the African American community. As a result, it never received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and lost in every category it was nominated for.
Surely Lee must have lost to a truly amazing movie then? That year Driving Miss Daisy won three Oscars, one of them being Best Picture. It was also a film grounded in race. However it did not create the same kind of racial discussion that is generated by Spike Lee’s movies, rather it is a genre of racial film that some critics refer to as “racial reconciliation” films. These movies are criticised because they don’t present the whole truth, rather they present an easily digestible race fantasy to its audiences.
That’s not to say this is a bad thing necessarily; Driving Miss Daisy is a great film. It is about a racist, elderly Jewish woman who lives in Atlanta and is deemed unfit to drive by her son. As such, he hires her a black chauffeur played by Morgan Freeman and they form a close friendship while Miss Daisy overcomes her racist tendencies. But these kind of movies often tout the idea that if you hang out with a person of colour for long enough, you are cured of your racism; essentially paving the way for excuses like, “I can’t be racist, my best friend is (insert race here).” As such, when movies like Driving Miss Daisy win while a movie that tells the whole, visceral truth like Do the Right Thing aren’t even given a nomination, all it shows is that Hollywood cares more about political correctness rather than real race politics.
But that was back then, things have changed right? So what about now?
Fast forward 30 years to 2019. Green Book has just been released and portrays the journey of an initially racist Italian American bouncer who is commissioned to chauffeur Don Shirley, an African American musician during the 1960s. The pair experience various racial attacks and the chauffeur, Tony, goes on to learn the wrongs of his racist ways. Sound familiar? It’s another racial reconciliation movie: a rehashed version of Driving Miss Daisy.
Again, it’s a movie about a racist hanging out with a person of colour and learning their ways; again that person of colour has little-to-no agency themselves; and again it’s just another movie that makes you feel good and think “thank god we’re not as racist as we used to be.” These reconciliatory movies reflect what we want to think race politics is like in the 21st century, but movies like Do the Right Thing and BlackkKlansman reflect the confronting and inconvenient truth. We can see this when Lee uses a montage of footage featuring neo-Nazis from the 2017 Charlottesville Riot at the end of BlackkKlansman, we can see this when Lee dedicates Do the Right Thing to real victims of police brutality, and we can see this when, during his acceptance speech, Lee implores us to all “do the right thing” in the face of the increasingly racialized nature of world politics.
Now again, this is not to say that Green Book is a bad movie. Director Peter Farrelly expertly transposes his comedic stylings from Shallow Hal and Something About Mary to craft a touching yet genuinely funny movie. And even though the movie wasn’t the most critical take on race, its view on the subject was tonally appropriate seeing as it was a relatively light-hearted film.
But there were plenty of other movies on the nomination list that projected a more thorough perspective of the racial experience like If Beale Street Could Talk and Roma, and both these movies in my opinion at least, were more compelling and memorable than Green Book. Even Green Book itself could have told a more original story if they just cast Don Shirley as the protagonist of the movie. But the Academy voters have evidently shown that they only favour safe movies with safe plots.
All at the same time, Hollywood and the Academy Awards continue to pride themselves on being at what they believe to be the forefront of progressive thought. But this constant reversion to reward the same kind of movie highlights how little has changed, how little will change, and how little they care. And ultimately, that is why Spike Lee abandoned the Oscars.
Image: MICHAEL BUCKNER/VARIETY/REX SHUTTERSTOCK