Faced with a choice between audacity, ambition, and one or two historic firsts, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences played it safe, giving the top award to a modest crowd-pleaser at the 91st Oscars on Sunday night.
“Green Book,” a gentle, warmhearted buddy comedy about a white Italian American driver and a black musician traveling through the Jim Crow South, won best picture in one of the evening’s genuine toss-ups. Throughout awards season, the animating questions were whether the Hollywood establishment would see fit to reward “Roma” with the top prize — which would have made it the first foreign-language film and Netflix movie to do so — or perhaps honor “Black Panther” or Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” a politically aware superhero movie and provocative allegory to present-day race relations.
Instead, the academy bestowed its highest accolade on a film that, while hugely popular with audiences, felt retrograde to its detractors — a throwback to the kind of movie that focused on reassurance and uplift more than confrontation and discomfiting critique. “Green Book,” critics said, is too polite, too restrained and too centered around a white protagonist to be considered the best picture of 2018.
It’s true that “Green Book” isn’t great art. But the film, which also earned Oscars for Mahershala Ali’s supporting performance as the musician Don Shirley, and for its screenplay, doesn’t merit its harshest scrutiny. As a movie of modest aspirations and an affable, unassuming tone — elevated by strong central performances from Ali and Viggo Mortensen — it was, as one of its producers said in his acceptance speech, made “with love . . . and tenderness . . . and respect.” Like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the evening’s big winner with four awards (including for Rami Malek’s portrayal of Freddie Mercury), “Green Book” was pitched less as polemic or political statement than a family picture. The fact that it won suggests that academy voters, like many moviegoers, are drawn to films that make them feel good
Taken as a whole, the Oscars should at least make them feel optimistic about progress within the movie industry. After years of agonizing over issues of representation regarding race and gender, the ceremony was notably inclusive on all counts, with the winners coming from a wide range of countries and ethnic origins. Although no female directors were nominated, plenty of women could be seen on the dais, including Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler, who won for their magnificent costumes and production design for “Black Panther.” In an emotional speech, Malek made note of his Egyptian heritage; as Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi observed as she accepted an Oscar for the documentary “Free Solo,” spreading the net wide when assembling casts and crews makes movies better.
Similarly, Phil Lord said when accepting the best animated film award for “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” “When we hear that . . . somebody’s kid was watching the movie and turned to them and said, ‘He looks like me,’ or ‘They speak Spanish like us,’ we feel like we already won.” Rather than a matter of dutiful box-checking or self-conscious hand-wringing, the notion of diversity finally felt organic and effortless, a reframing beautifully crystallized by director Alfonso Cuarón when he accepted the foreign-language award for “Roma.” While growing up in Mexico City, he noted, he learned about cinema by watching such foreign-language films as “Citizen Kane” and “Jaws.”
Cuarón also won awards for cinematography and best director, which many fans hoped would go to Lee for “BlacKkKlansman.” Lee wound up winning for best adapted screenplay — a typical outcome during a ceremony in which nearly every nominated film got something. That includes “The Favourite,” which came away with the event’s one genuine upset when lead actress Olivia Colman won that category instead of presumed front-runner (and serial nominee) Glenn Close.
Colman seemed legitimately gobsmacked during her speech, which was a performance in itself, punctuated with charmingly British fluster and cheeky asides. But the evening’s less glitzy moments were perhaps even more winning — and meaningful — such as when the co-director of the documentary short “Period. End of Sentence,” admitted she was crying “because my movie about menstruation just won the Oscar” or Ludwig Goransson, the Swedish composer for “Black Panther,” thanked musicians in Africa and London.
Those were just two among many interludes when the Academy Awards felt less like a Hollywood ritual than a celebration of cosmopolitanism and global consciousness — not because they had to, but because that’s where art comes from. This is what movies and moviemakers look like, this year’s Oscars seemed to say, and this is what they should have looked like all along.