When Green Book won Best Picture at the Oscars last night, its director, Peter Farrelly, struck a tone of unity and progress: “The whole story is about loving each other despite our differences, and finding the truth out about who we are: We’re the same people,” he said in his acceptance speech.
Spike Lee, whose movie BlacKkKlansman was also up for Best Picture, was skeptical. In an interview backstage, he likened the film’s win to a “bad call” in basketball and then drew a connection between BlacKkKlansman’s loss this year and a similar situation in 1990—when his movie about racial tensions in Brooklyn, Do the Right Thing, was snubbed in favor of Driving Miss Daisy. “Every time somebody’s driving somebody I lose,” he said.
The contrast between these directors’ tones and viewpoints epitomizes a struggle over stories about race throughout Oscars history. To many, Green Book’s victory fits into a pattern of the Oscars rewarding safe, self-congratulatory and white-created films about race, in which a satisfying but ultimately false equality is achieved before the credits roll.
Green Book, for what it’s worth, is beloved by many—it racked up many awards before the Oscars and received rave reviews in audience exit polls. Several personal friends of Don Shirley, the black pianist depicted by Mahershala Ali in the film, said the movie poignantly captured his struggle and unique persona: “It was like he was back to life. For two hours, he gave us back Dr. Shirley,” Michael Kappeyne, Shirley’s friend and former student, said an interview with TIME. And the film has prominent black supporters in Hollywood and beyond. Oscar winner Octavia Spencer is an executive producer, and Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis introduced it at the ceremony Sunday night, applauding the movie’s depiction of the tumultuous time period through which he lived.
But the film received plenty of criticism, including from the Shirley family—who felt it was inaccurate and demeaning—and many online, who felt it aligned with tropes of the white savior and the Magical Negro. And the production team came under fire yet again on Oscars night, when they failed to mention Shirley—or the Negro Motorist Green Book from which the film takes its name—in their acceptance speech.
Comparisons between Green Book and Driving Miss Daisy circulated long before they shared Best Picture accolades. In the New York Times, Wesley Morris called both “racial-reconciliation fantasies”: feel-good buddy films in which two characters, who are separated by race and class, form a grudging and then warm friendship. Both films focus more on the growth of the white character than on the black character’s interior life. Morgan Freeman, who starred in Driving Miss Daisy, later called his involvement a “mistake” because it typecast him into a longstanding stereotype of African-American men being portrayed as wise and dignified in the face of suffering.
A similarly righteous character was played by Sidney Poitier two decades earlier in In the Heat of the Night. In the film, he plays a savvy black cop who solemnly weathers the taunting of the racists around him—including a sheriff played by Rod Steiger—while solving a murder case. And while the film was transgressive for Poitier’s revenge slap of a plantation owner, it put Steiger’s character’s evolution front and center. The film walked away with an Oscar for Best Picture—and Steiger won Best Actor over Poitier, who was not nominated.
Over the ’80s and ’90s, the Best Picture winners that had the opportunity to tell nuanced black stories pushed them to the background. Out of Africa, which won at the 1986 ceremony, depicts Robert Redford and Meryl Streep romping across the African plains, with actual Africans mostly serving as exocitized extras; the film beat out The Color Purple, which starred Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey in her film debut. And Forrest Gump, which won in 1995, has since come under scrutiny for its whitewashing of three decades of American history and reduction of black characters to stereotypes or the help.
The film most emblematic of the Academy’s struggle to confront racial issues, though, is Crash, which won Best Picture in 2006. The film crisscrosses cross-cultural encounters in Los Angeles, staging heavy-handed confrontations that unfold in a “toxic cloud of dramaturgical pixie dust,” in the eyes of one reviewer, before ending with an uplifting note that tolerance and diversity can and will lead to a better society.
The Academy Awards have made significant progress toward diversity over the last 15 years. The #OscarsSoWhite campaign led to a widening and diversifying of the voting pool, with the groundbreaking Moonlight winning Best Picture in 2017. Three out of the four acting winners this year—Rami Malek, Mahershala Ali, and Regina King—were people of color, while Mexican directors have taken home the Best Director trophy five of the last six years.
And while many supporters of Green Book believe it’s a clever inversion of old tropes, its detractors see its victory as a continuation of the Oscars rewarding a familiarly naive story, told from a familiarly white viewpoint. Its legacy may shift over time, but for at least this year, the Academy proved it is still enamored by Farrelly’s rosy declaration that “We’re all the same people.”
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