Heading into the final stretch of the 91st Academy Awards, it seemed like something magically unexpected could happen.
This awards season – with its backbiting, mudslinging, and generally underwhelming slate of contenders – has been quite unpleasant. Match that with the Academy’s bizarre attempts to tinker with the ceremony – host, then no host, categories during commercials, 90-second Original Song performances – and you had less a celebration of the previous year in film and more of a joyless slog to get through hopefully unscathed.
And then people started winning things.
Regina King (with a charming assist from Chris Evans) claimed the award’s first evening for Supporting Actress, kicking off a historic stretch of black women winning. For Black Panther, Ruth Carter won Costume Design and Hannah Beachler won Production Design, the first time that black women claimed these categories, and the first time that multiple black women won outside of the acting categories. In all of my years watching the Oscars, I don’t recall ever seeing so many women, and women of color, on stage winning, from Best Documentary Short for Period. End of Sentence (about de-stigmatizing menstruation in India) to Best Animated Short for Bao.
It was an evening of remarkable acknowledgment of the non-white, non-male contingent of Hollywood that the Academy is still trying to reflect in its rank-and-file. Latinx audiences also saw great strides, with Roma becoming the most successful foreign language film at the Oscars since 1998’s Life is Beautiful. Rami Malek concluded his awards sweep as the first Arab-American man to win Best Actor for Bohemian Rhapsody. And Black filmmakers had their best night since 2002: Mahershala Ali became the first Black actor since Denzel Washington to win multiple acting awards, Peter Ramsey became the first Black winner of Animated Feature for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse. When Spike Lee took home Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman, thirty years after being nominated Original Screenplay for Do the Right Thing, what seemed a long shot was suddenly a legitimate possible upset: could he take home Best Picture?
The answer was the wrong kind of shock, and nearly wrecked this unprecedented evening.
At the end of a delightfully brisk and light, remarkably diverse evening, Hollywood bestowed its highest honor – the Oscar for Best Picture – to Green Book, the true story of how a white man and black man solved deep-seated issues of racism during a tour of the 1960’s Deep South. This pleasant, warm-hearted buddy comedy at least has the decency of improving upon its role-reversed predecessor Driving Miss Daisy. But like it, Green Book is a shallow, clichéd, condescending depiction of race relations that doesn’t do the hard work that our current cultural climate demands of films conducting such exploration. One such film was nominated alongside Green Book; Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman. That history should effectively repeat itself thirty years later – when Lee’s Do The Right Thing was passed over for recognition while Driving Miss Daisy went on to win Best Picture – is frankly unforgivable.
If the Academy didn’t want to give Best Picture to Lee, they could’ve given it to heavy favorite Roma, which claimed three Oscars. That would’ve been historic in its own right, as Roma would’ve been the first foreign language film to win Best Picture. The other precedent that would’ve set, as the first streaming film to win, was clearly too large a hurdle for the voters and their anti-Netflix biases to jump, despite its unrivaled technical achievement. And what of The Favourite, tied with Roma for most nominations and claiming only one (Olivia Colman upsetting Glenn Close for Best Actress)? Maybe a film with three female lead characters, all of them queer, didn’t resonate, as Kyle Buchanan of The New York Times suggested last week. They even had a legitimate choice with A Star is Born, which started the season with tons of momentum before petering out with only one win (Best Original Song for “Shallow”). No, the Academy instead chose a film whose pedestrian approach to race is distressingly similar to previous winners Crash and, again, Driving Miss Daisy; it suggests that little has changed since 2005, or even 1989. No wonder Spike Lee reportedly tried to leave during Peter Farrelly’s speech.
The 91st Academy Awards will likely be remembered for how it elevated women and people of color to glory across multiple categories. But when it really mattered, the Academy just couldn’t help itself.