Last night, a surprising, strong Academy Awards ceremony was capped by one of the most contentious and polarizing Best Picture wins of the 21st century when Green Book beat out Roma, Black Panther and The Favourite for the top Oscar prize.
Green Book received warm critical praise upon release, but as it expanded into more theaters, backlash rose against the movie’s retrograde racial politics. In Green Book, a working class white man chauffeurs an upper class black man through the Jim Crow south of 1962. The two men become friends along the way, but some problematic scenes include the white man telling the black man how to eat fried chicken, the white man introducing the black man to Aretha Franklin and the white man talking over the black man as the latter begins to explain the intricacies of racism.
Green Book was written by Nick Vallelonga, the real-life son of the white chauffeur, Tony Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen in the movie). While Tony has an arc in the movie in which his bigotry is dampened by his time with Dr. Don Shirley, the musician he’s driving, that arc is given less time and attention than Dr. Shirley’s arc of becoming more in touch with other black people and some stereotypical aspects of black culture, critics say. Even Shirley’s surviving family has called the movie a “symphony of lies.”
The controversy of Green Book is summarized well by Justin Chang for the Los Angeles Times:
“Everytime somebody’s driving somebody, I lose,” Spike Lee just said in the #Oscars press room.
— Michael Nordine (@slowbeard) February 25, 2019
Green Book‘s other Oscar win came in Best Supporting Actor, where Mahershala Ali won his second Best Supporting Actor trophy (he had won in the 2017 category for Moonlight) for his portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley, a role he said “pushed me to my ends.”