History was made over and over again at the 2019 Oscars (check out the complete list of winners here). “Black Panther” champs Ruth E. Carter (Best Costume Design) and Hannah Beachler (Best Production Design) became the first black winners in their respective categories. “Roma” became the first Mexican winner for Best Foreign Language Film. The directors of “Free Solo” and “Bao” joined a short list of Asian filmmakers to win Best Documentary Feature and Best Animated Short, respectively. Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”), the son of Egyptian immigrants, was the first Best Actor winner in history of Arab descent.
… And then “Green Book” won Best Picture.
How will that controversial ending affect how this year’s historic awards are remembered as a whole? Honestly, it feels sometimes like the Oscars have a split personality. As the motion picture academy has diversified its ranks it has given us bolder, unconventional Best Picture choices like “Spotlight” (2015), “Moonlight” (2016) and “The Shape of Water” (2017). But in a year of historic diversity when multiple films about the experiences of people of color made by people of color took home major prizes (“Roma,” “Black Panther,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”), the academy’s choice for the best film of the year was a movie about racism written, directed and produced by white men and centering the experiences of a white man who heroically befriends a black man while touring the Jim Crow South.
Whatever your thoughts about “Green Book” as a film — and there are lots of thoughts to go around the morning after the awards — it’s a film about racism that could have been made and honored by the Oscars 30 years ago. As far as some are concerned it already was honored 30 years ago. And as people of color strive to make inroads in the entertainment industry and beyond, its victory sends a mixed message that the most important voices in discussions of equality still belong to white men.
This message is further complicated by the fact the central black voice in “Green Book” — real-life pianist Don Shirley, played by Best Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali — was created without input from his family, which led to strong push-back against the movie. And it’s complicated even more than that by the fact that Oscar-winning co-writer and producer Nick Vallelonga (whose father is portrayed in the film by Viggo Mortensen) made a false Islamophobic comment in the past — Ali, by the way, is Muslim.
So in the end the Oscars were either half-empty or half-full when it comes to the stories that get to be celebrated by the motion picture academy. Perhaps that’s to be expected given the demographic shifts in the motion picture academy. While there’s an upsurge of diverse voices at the Oscars across the board, there’s still an old guard that can relate to Tony Lip in “Green Book” better than they can relate to Ron Stallworth in “BlacKkKlansman,” T’Challa in “Black Panther,” Fonny in “Beale Street” or Cleo in “Roma.” But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Ron, T’Challa, Fonny and Cleo still got their stories told, and they got their stories recognized. Even 10 years ago that might not have been a given. Even now it’s not a given.
To paraphrase Sandra Oh when she hosted the Golden Globes in January, this felt like a moment of change in many ways. And to quote her directly, “I’m not fooling myself. Next year could be different. It probably will be. But right now, this moment is real.”