Oscars 2019: Green Book's Best Picture win is an embarrassment for the Academy

Clarisse Loughrey

Green Book’s win at this year’s Academy Awards is a dismal reminder that progress is a slow, tedious process. You need only to imagine how this night could have unfolded in an alternate universe, where Green Book’s biggest competition, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, claimed the main prize. Had Roma prevailed it would have made history, becoming both the first foreign language film and the first film distributed by Netflix (or any other streaming service) to win Best Picture.

It would have been a win that actually felt like the Academy was looking towards the future, smashing through the strict confines that have so far determined what we deem awards worthy and allowing this yearly celebration of film to finally start reflecting how diverse (on every possible level) the art form actually is.

It would also have cemented the idea that the Academy’s efforts to diversify its membership had actually had some effect on the Oscars themselves. A damning survey in 2014 found that, out of 6,028 Oscar voters, 94 per cent were white and 77 per cent were male. The average age was also 63. In response to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign of 2015 and 2016, The Academy vowed to address the issue head-on and, that same year, 683 new members were invited to join, of which 41 per cent were people of colour, and 46 per cent were women.

In 2017, the Academy added a record-breaking 774 new members from 57 different countries, of which 30 per cent were people of colour and 39 per cent were women. That said, at this point, only 13 per cent of the Academy comprises of people of colour.

Moonlight’s win in 2017 followed by The Shape of Water’s in 2018 had implied some kind of shift in voting patterns had occurred, since both were considered non-traditional choices for Best Picture. But Green Book is about as traditional a choice as you can get – the comparisons to Driving Miss Daisy’s win in 1990 are entirely merited.

It’s a film that has faced widespread criticism for its use of the “white saviour” trope, since its story of a friendship between two real-life figures – black jazz musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his white driver Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) – depicted the experiences of black Americans in the segregated South almost entirely through a white perspective. Crucially, it ignored the realities of racism in order to deliver a neat story about Tony’s redemption as a racist man who learns to become a more tolerant person.

In short, it’s a story that, as The Root’s Monique Judge wrote, “spoon-feeds racism to white people”, allowing them to feel comforted under the (false) pretence that racism is merely an artefact of the past and not a fundamental evil of the present.

It’s a film that’s also birthed a string of controversies, with Shirley’s family denouncing the film as a “symphony of lies”, claiming that they had been entirely left out of the filmmaking process. Particularly concerning was their accusation that the film’s central friendship was a complete fabrication and that Shirley never regarded Vallelonga as anything more than an employee.

The film’s screenwriter and Tony’s real-life son, Nick Vallelonga, responded by stating that Shirley had told him not to speak to anyone else about the film before he died in 2013; the film’s director, Peter Farrelly, also said that efforts were made to contact the family before filming. Furthermore, there were further controversies regarding an unearthed racist tweet by Nick Vallelonga, Viggo Mortensen’s use of the N-word during a Q&A for the film, and an old article in which Peter Farrelly admitted to flashing his penis on set as a joke.

All three have since apologised for their actions, but there’s no denying that Green Book’s win tonight doesn’t feel like much of a victory. It’s more of a case of the same old, same old when it comes to the Oscars.