It has been a couple of weeks since ‘Green Book’ won Best Picture and received the kind of backlash normally set aside for athletes who leave their team after 10 years or politicians who sign petitions legalizing the clubbing of baby seals. But there is a reality we must start warming up to. ‘Green Book’ is not a terrible movie and our hatred for it is somewhat fabricated. There, I said it.
Don’t take my word for it. Consider, according to Rotten Tomatoes, ‘Green Book’ has a 79% critic approval rating and a 93% audience approval rating. As well, ‘Green Book’ has made more money than all but two Best Picture winners in the 2010’s. And, it’s post-Oscar box office bump is the biggest we have seen in 8 years. All to say, healthy box office, strong critical scores and very strong audience scores do not a hated movie make. And yet, the backlash is palpable. But why?
According to nearly every “who will win/who should win” article written prior to the 2019 Oscar ceremony, the specific rationale behind why any of the nominated pictures should have won had very little to do with quality. Instead, there were three overarching reasons:
- Some of the other contenders were too controversial
2. It is time for the Academy to reward diversity and inclusion (‘Roma’, ‘Black Panther’, etc.)
3. It is time for the Academy to recognize the consistent greatness of…(Spike Lee for ‘BlacKkKlansman’, Marvel for ‘Black Panther’, etc.)
‘Green Book’ fits squarely into category one. Has that led to the backlash? Not exactly. After all, most of the controversy surfaced several months ago and ‘Green Book’ has been steadily performing and pleasing audiences since. And yet, it is the worst Best Picture winner in history. So was ‘Crash’. And ‘Shakespeare in Love’. And ‘Forrest Gump’. And ‘Driving Miss Daisy’.
‘Crash’ and ‘Shakespeare in Love’ have a particularly cruel Oscar history with critics and audiences alike. ‘Forrest Gump’s’ legacy is slightly less dogged. That said, all three are consistently lambasted for the same reason. They just happen to have beat three universally adored movies, two of which were game changers in ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Brokeback Mountain’. 2019 introduced similar game changers in ‘Roma’ and ‘Black Panther’. Might we be getting closer to the source of our sudden disdain for ‘Green Book’?
Going back to the ‘who will win/who should win’ articles that popped up in 2019 and every other year, it is rare that Oscar pundits and entertainment journalists talk about the quality of a movie or a performance when discussing who should win. Glenn Close was the wildly popular choice to take home the gold in 2019, largely because she has been nominated six other times without a win. In 2012, Ben Affleck was not nominated for Best Director and it is widely believed that said snub was the primary reason ‘Argo’ won Best Picture. There was a substantial protest to Casey Affleck’s nomination and eventual Best Actor win for his turn in ‘Manchester by the Sea’. The issues were not for the quality of his performance but instead a sexual misconduct incident that occurred several years back.
It goes without saying that ‘Green Book’ had its own share of controversy. Some of it had to do with one of its stars using the ’N’ word when trying to describe how he saw race relations and some of it had to do with the soft means by which the movie dealt with segregation and race. As a Certified Diversity Executive and Certified Master Facilitator who deals with hardline human issues every day, I found ‘Green Book’ to be too safe and cutesy.
And here we are. It has taken home the Best Picture Oscar and we are losing our minds. The question is, what are we losing our minds about? Was it a movie of poor quality? Again, ‘Green Book’ has a 79% critic approval rating and a 93% audience approval rating. Is it that other movies should have won? Okay, but does the fact that they didn’t win all of a sudden make ‘Green Book’ a terrible movie?
To answer this question, I’d like to focus on another controversial movie that did well at the 2019 Oscars — ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. The $800 million grossing film that took home more awards than any other and is being derided because of it. Of course, this film has its own controversy. Some say writers and producers played it safe in not exploring the deeper seeded issues between Freddie Mercury and the other members of Queen. Others think it glossed over his sexuality. Of course, there are and have been rampant sexual misconduct allegations against the movies director, Bryan Singer. Did these controversies stop people from buying tickets and giving it an 88% audience approval rating? Nah. But damn are we angry about it winning those awards.
We must take a deep breathe and be honest with ourselves about a few things.
Thing 1: The Oscars are either about the best movie or performance or they are about the best movie and performance that fits our social narrative of the moment.
Exhibit A: ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was a critical darling (88%) over ‘Crash’ (74%), while ‘Crash’ had a higher audience rating (88% vs. 82%). The United States should have been ready for the themes and messages of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ in 2005 but they were not, hence, the less critically acclaimed movie (‘Crash’) that audiences now hate for some reason won.
Exhibit B: ‘Roma’ was universally adored by critics (96%) and less so by audiences (72%). When pundits talked about its weak points in contending for Best Picture, they cited a social narrative that is ripe in Hollywood. Are Oscar voters ready to give the top award to a movie that did not have a traditional theatrical release? The answer, as we all know, is no.
Exhibit C: Nearly every article or interview that talks about Oscar nominations and wins focuses on political and social factors.
Thing 2: When we lose our cookies over ‘Green Book’ winning Best Picture, we are, in some ways, being disingenuous. After all, we paid to see the movie and gave it high scores to boot. Spitting all over it after the fact is a suspect reaction. Now, some may argue that audience acclaim and strong box office do not a Best Picture make. Fine. But that is a different reaction than all of a sudden dismissing the film as garbage.
Thing 3: If we can acknowledge Thing 1, we must also acknowledge that any film lover would have a justified gripe with whatever movie wins Best Picture. Why? People are on different sides of any social narrative and thus strife will be a forever stamp in our culture. What’s more, there will always be purists who just want the best film and best performances to win, politics aside. After all, the awards all begin with the word “Best”.
Again, I was not a huge fan of ‘Green Book’. Neither was Spike Lee who has been consistent in his complaints about the films lack of courage and authenticity in portraying the black struggle. As such, his criticisms of the Best Picture win are both authentic and focused. Could he have avoided trying to leave the theater in protest? Probably, but his issues aren’t a product of manufactured group rage. Based on the preponderance of information available at our disposal, the same is not true when it comes to the court of public opinion who suddenly made it picture non grata.