How the 2019 Oscars failed to stick the landing

The 2019 Oscars were surprisingly good ... until Green Book won Best Picture

The Green Book team
(Image credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

By early evening on Sunday, the 91st Academy Awards were looking to be the greatest Oscars in at least a decade.

Miraculously, the comedy of errors that had led up to the event resulted in many viewers agreeing that the host-less program was just what was needed for "a tight, snappy, fast-moving show." In addition to being mercifully watchable, it seemed as if the Oscars were at last beginning to reflect the tastes of an increasingly diverse body of voters: Bohemian Rhapsody's editing award aside, many of the accolades on Sunday night seemed deserved, if not long overdue. But the optimistic atmosphere was not to last. Green Book, deemed "the worst Best Picture winner in more than a decade" by the Los Angeles Times, became the night's big winner.

How can the Oscars be so good now, while the ceremony's top category remains such a disaster?

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The Oscars have faced years of valid criticism over their lack of diversity, prompting a recent conscious attempt to reshape the organization's large body of voters: This year, 49 percent of the incoming members were women, and about 30 percent were minorities, bringing the total Academy voting body to about 31 percent women and 16 percent minorities — that's certainly not perfect, but it is an important step in the right direction. Likewise, while the nominees have tended to be similarly white and male (the creator of 2016's #OscarsSoWhite protest argued recently that "until we are no longer lauding 'firsts' after a 90-year history … #OscarsSoWhite remains relevant"), progress is undeniably being made.

Take, for example, the number of historic achievements notched on Sunday night. Before the show, only one black woman had ever won an Oscar for anything other than acting; two more joined the ranks on Sunday for work on Black Panther's costumes and production design. Spike Lee won for the BlacKkKlansman script, while other directors of color took home awards for the animated short Bao, the animated documentary Period. End of Sentence, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. For the first time, foreign-language films were up "in almost every category," in the words of presenter Angela Bassett. Additionally, Roma's Alfonso Cuarón became the fifth Mexican director in six years to win Best Director.

So, it's understandable that Green Book's win felt like two steps back for the baby step taken forward in 2019. New York Times critic Wesley Morris pegged the film as a "racial reconciliation fantasy," yet another example in of a long tradition of Hollywood films about interracial friendships that "treat … black characters as the ideal crowbar for closed white minds and insulated lives." The film, which is based on a true story, has also been slammed for ignoring the black character's version of events, while the scriptwriter has been accused of being Islamophobic. Ironically, Green Book's plot — about a racist Italian-American who gets hired to chauffeur a sophisticated black pianist through the Deep South in the 1960s — is a reverse of Driving Miss Daisy, which beat out Spike Lee's far more impressive Do The Right Thing in 1989. This year, when Green Book beat Lee's "masterpiece" BlacKkKlansman, the director announced to the press room that "every time somebody's driving somebody, I lose!"

Green Book's victory is a symptom of the same illness that has plagued the Best Picture category for decades, resulting in winners ranging from mediocre to terrible, including forgettable films like Argo, The Artist, and The King's Speech. Even as other Oscar categories have matured along with the diversifying voting body, Best Picture has remained bogged down, thanks in part to its unique "ranked choice" voting system that was introduced in 2009, in which the "least disliked" movie typically ends up winning. Art, unlike politics, is not best served by such middle grounds; the approach to picking a Best Picture winner has only proven to hurt the chances of bolder or more challenging films that divide audiences.

As a result, the 91st Academy Awards was both encouraging in its progress and also stymied by its ongoing insistence on pleasing the crowd with a palatable Best Picture winner. While plenty of people are happy with Green Book taking the top award — despite its problems, it is admittedly a competently-made film — in all likelihood, come February 2020, it will be all but forgotten, just like Birdman, or Spotlight.

The Oscars are bigger and more exciting than ever. Never before have so many gripping, boundary-pushing, experimental, beautiful films been in competition. But the biggest award of the night is still waiting to grow up.

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