Fish and Cherries Productions

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The White Filmmaker’s Green-Book

The Oscars have had an… interesting relationship with race. While there have been interesting blips and hiccups like La La Land accidentally usurping Moonlight’s Best Picture moment or articles saying that Chris Pine crying during a Selma segment “solved racism,” the incident that kicked off this writing is the controversy with the recent Best Picture winner, Green Book. And oh boy, is this one a mess. I know I’m a white person who is as far removed from these events as possible, but this needs addressing.

Green Book itself is named after The Negro Motorist’s Green-Book, a book that listed restaurants, motels, and other establishments in the Jim Crow South that would accommodate black travellers. The story of the movie itself follows African-American pianist Jon Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, and his typically prejudiced Italian-American driver, Tony Vallelonga (whose son Nick wrote the movie’s screenplay), played by Viggo Mortenson, as they drive through the South on a concert tour in 1962 and form an unlikely friendship. When it first came out, many critics fell over themselves praising the movie, saying that it touched on the subject matter of racism perfectly, educating people of the horrors African-Americans faced in the Deep South at that time, and brought the great Mr. Shirley back to life. All seemed well for this historical race drama… until some very prominent objections started making themselves heard.

See, there was a lot of flak about Green Book being another in a long string of “white savior movies” — you know, where one white person kickstarts change for an ethnic person or community. If you’ve seen The Air Up There, The Last Samurai, The Help, or even Avatar (the blue people one, not The Last Airbender), you know what I’m talking about. However, the real controversy surrounds Mr. Shirley himself, who told his driver not to tell this story, was apparently misrepresented in the film and subject to numerous inaccuracies, and whose surviving family wasn’t even acknowledged or approached for their blessing for the film. Add to that a cringeworthy Oscar acceptance speech where the one accepting the award heaped mountains of praise on the white actors and then hastily added Ali as if he was an afterthought and you have a movie tackling race problems… that seems to have its own race problem.

Personally, I’m reminded of a similar instance over a decade ago with the film Crash (funnily enough, I just found out that another article made this comparison, so how’s that for coincidence?). This 2006 best picture winner was about racism… and that’s it. Practically every line of dialogue is about or portraying some kind of prejudice or stereotype, like if the Avenue Q song “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” was made into a feature-length movie and played completely straight. I remember a few years after it came out having a conversation about it with my friend Lenny, who hated the movie because he felt like it was condescendingly saying, “this is racism and this is what racism does to people.” I chalked it up to a difference of opinion at the time, but history has proven Lenny right as critics have torn it apart for its ham-handed way of handling the issues and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates calling it the worst movie of the decade. “I don’t think there is a single human being in Crash,” Coates wrote. “Instead you have arguments and propaganda  violently bumping into each other, impressed with their own quirkiness.”

Crash and Green Book winning Best Picture indicates one of two things: either the Academy members aren’t aware of racial nuances (certainly the more cynical option) or want to be racially forward and have no idea how. There is something to be said about the cynical option as both Seth Meyers and Lindsay Ellis feel that numerous white filmmakers make movies about racial tensions because movies about race tend to win awards (read my review of Bright for a clear example). The problem is that many white filmmakers (and Academy members) aren’t well-equipped to tell these stories because they don’t have personal experience with prejudice and, more often than not, frame such stories in terms of redemption and reconciliation rather than systemic prejudice like how it works in real life. As prejudiced as it may sound, the least interesting perspective on American racism is a white person’s because they can only look at it from the outside.

For whatever the reason, a lot of intricate racial nuances get overlooked by the Oscars both then and now. Need I remind you, Crash beat out Brokeback Mountain, which was perhaps the more necessary movie in the homophobic years of the Bush Administration. And while I never expected Black Panther to win Best Picture, it’s a bit uncomfortable for it to lose to a movie where the white hero teaches his black friend how to eat fried chicken. My hope is that this controversy opens some eyes, but I don’t expect that to happen overnight. If I’m honest, I don’t expect the problem to get better for a while because this isn’t something with a simple fix. There isn’t just one racist person ruining it for everyone who can be removed from power or have their eyes opened, it’s a whole web of unconscious, interwoven biases and behaviors born from a long history and life of privilege and systemic inequality and unfortunately, that doesn’t have an easy fix. Whether it’s true or not, giving out Best Picture Awards to these movies makes me think of old white men patting themselves on the back for simply addressing surface racism. I would say that people of color need to make their way to the top of the Academy’s ranks for real change to happen, but I don’t want anyone to blame me if a movie like that comes out and winds up winning Best Picture.

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