The 2019 Academy Awards started off breaking records and defying expectations. Barely an hour in, the academy had already given out a record number of Oscars to black women, including Ruth Carter and Hannah Beachler, for the costume and production design of Black Panther, and while many of the other winners fell into line with advance predictions, there were at least a few pleasant surprises. With Roma winning for Best Foreign-Language Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography, it seemed as if all Julia Roberts had to do was hand Alfonso Cuarón his fourth statue of the night and throw to the closing credits.
In retrospect, perhaps we should have seen Green Book’s Best Picture win coming. Awarding Roma in the foreign category allowed the academy to say that the black-and-white, Spanish-language movie about an indigenous Mexican woman had at least won a best picture, if not the best picture. And Green Book was just progressive enough, on a superficial level, for voters to feel like they were making a statement about racial equality, while they were actually endorsing a story whose moral is that if only black people were exceptional enough, even the most diehard white racist would eventually come around.
The academy has vastly increased its numbers over the past few years, with a particular eye to adding female, nonwhite, and foreign voters, and it seemed as if that increased diversity might have put an end to truly cringeworthy Best Picture winners. There were years when the movie that won Best Picture was actually the best picture! Arriving exactly 30 years after the faceoff between Driving Miss Daisy and Do the Right Thing, Green Book’s triumph is a throwback to the days when the academy chose comforting fables about racial tolerance over movies that challenged its white members to question themselves—or over a movie like Moonlight, which left white people out of the story altogether. And though “brutally honest” accounts from individual Oscar voters are difficult to generalize from, there’s certainly anecdotal evidence that some of the pro-Green Book vote was driven by resentment at the criticisms lodged against it. It’s a movie that preaches tolerance, but its win also served the function of warning its critics to remember their place.
None of this is even to mention the fact that Green Book’s road to victory started with its white star uttering the N-word, plowed through backlash from its subject’s family, cruised along with the revelation that its director used to flash his co-workers as a joke, and then still somehow picked up speed after, later that same day, Twitter users unearthed its screenwriter’s old pro-Trump, anti-Muslim tweets.
The day before the Oscars, Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk won best film at the Independent Spirit Awards. With the academy trending in recent years toward art-house fare, the Spirits had become something of a warmup for the big show, to the extent that they began to seem slightly redundant: If the Oscars’ top prize is going to the same movies as the Spirits—as it did five times between 2011 and 2016—why even bother with two separate shows? But this year, for the first time in years, not a single one of the Spirits’ Best Film nominees was nominated for Best Picture. Adapted from a James Baldwin novel, Beale Street is a story of black indomitability, a protest against police injustice and mass incarceration that is also deeply sensual, flooded with the heady rush of young love and the pain of those lovers’ separation. It was nominated for three Oscars, and won one, for Regina King’s portrayal of a mother grieving the unjust jailing of her grandchild’s father. But Beale Street was missing from the Oscars’ top categories, and Green Book’s win makes its absence seem more acute. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a less sugar-coated movie about a black man and a white man working together, was at least nominated for Best Picture, and won for Adapted Screenplay (beating out Beale Street). But Lee, who reportedly attempted to storm out of the theater the moment Green Book’s win was announced, couldn’t help but observe that history seemed to be repeating itself. “Every time somebody’s driving somebody,” Lee said, “I lose.”
Beale Street is set in the past, but Jenkins makes it clear that the systemic injustices that existed then are still very much with us. Green Book tells us that racism was bad, but only in a region circumscribed in time and space. Drive a few hours north, or wait a few decades, and those problems will all melt away.