“I’m snakebit,” Spike Lee told reporters when asked if his Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for BlacKkKlansman “made up” for losing a 1989 Best Picture award for Do the Right Thing. Lee made it clear after the show concluded that he was not a happy camper after watching Green Book win the top award for 2018 — but at least he still had his sense of humor. “Every time somebody’s driving somebody,” he said in an acerbic reference to Driving Miss Daisy, “I lose!”
He added with a sardonic laugh, “But they changed the seating arrangement!”
Oof. Lee was also asked about his reaction in the auditorium after the announcement. Reportedly Lee stormed off to leave the theater only to find the doors closed, and instead sat down with his back to the stage while Green Book‘s producers gave their speech. “I thought I was courtside at the Garden,” Lee explained. “The refs made a bad call.”
What got Lee so upset? Audiences and critics mostly loved Green Book, but a few critics have suggested as Lee does here that it’s basically Driving Miss Daisy in reverse. The film focuses too much on a white protagonist, they claim, and not enough on the African-American whose life should be the center of storytelling. The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday defends Green Book and argues that the criticism is understandable but unfair:
“Green Book,” a gentle, warmhearted buddy comedy about a white Italian American driver and a black musician traveling through the Jim Crow South, won best picture in one of the evening’s genuine toss-ups. Throughout awards season, the animating questions were whether the Hollywood establishment would see fit to reward “Roma” with the top prize — which would have made it the first foreign-language film and Netflix movie to do so — or perhaps honor “Black Panther” or Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” a politically aware superhero movie and provocative allegory to present-day race relations.
Instead, the academy bestowed its highest accolade on a film that, while hugely popular with audiences, felt retrograde to its detractors — a throwback to the kind of movie that focused on reassurance and uplift more than confrontation and discomfiting critique. “Green Book,” critics said, is too polite, too restrained and too centered around a white protagonist to be considered the best picture of 2018.
It’s true that “Green Book” isn’t great art. But the film, which also earned Oscars for Mahershala Ali’s supporting performance as the musician Don Shirley, and for its screenplay, doesn’t merit its harshest scrutiny. As a movie of modest aspirations and an affable, unassuming tone — elevated by strong central performances from Ali and Viggo Mortensen — it was, as one of its producers said in his acceptance speech, made “with love . . . and tenderness . . . and respect.” Like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the evening’s big winner with four awards (including for Rami Malek’s portrayal of Freddie Mercury), “Green Book” was pitched less as polemic or political statement than a family picture. The fact that it won suggests that academy voters, like many moviegoers, are drawn to films that make them feel good.
Well, last year it was the awful The Shape of Water that won the Oscar, which mostly proves that there’s no accounting for taste. That film won because of its supposed status as “great art,” certainly not on the basis of being a “feel good” movie. Why didn’t “great art” carry the day the very next year, but got dispensed for a film of “modest aspirations” and “an affable, unassuming tone”? Perhaps Lee’s point is to ask why Hollywood feels more good about films like Green Book and Driving Miss Daisy than they do about Do the Right Thing and BlacKkKlansman, both of which tackle racism more from the perspective of the historically oppressed. And it’s not an unfair question.
At least the turgid spectacle managed to run only as long as an average NFL game. Critic Hank Stuever writes that it’s the only improvement over past years:
It seemed ABC might deliver on its promise of a three-hour Oscar telecast Sunday, until somewhere around the time Alfonso Cuarón, accepting best director for his film “Roma,” whipped out the index cards from his tux pocket and “Green Book” won best picture and had some thankin’ to do. The show’s 3 hour and 17 minute length (minus end credits) still felt like progress.
But here’s what not new about Oscar night: Me being assigned to review what should be and someday still could be an entertaining live TV show, and not finding one. How did this host-less, hyper-scrutinized, weirdly insecure (and did we mention host-less?) Oscar night turn out for those at home, who still bask in the glow of chips-and-queso and watch from the embrace of our nifty new gravity blankets?
Oh, you know — more or less the same. They kept all the speeches but lost any trace of the unpredictable magic. They opened with Queen (the actual band, fronted by their usual Freddie Mercury replacement, Adam Lambert) and a promise that “We Will Rock You,” but we all know better. The Oscar telecast has never rocked anyone.
When they get it down to under three hours and skip the politics, let me know.
Note: Just to clarify, Do the Right Thing was not nominated for Best Picture against Driving Miss Daisy, although it did get two Oscar nominations in other categories that year. In retrospect, the best and most enduring film out of those nominated for Best Picture in 1989 was Field of Dreams, with Dead Poets Society a close second.
PS: And don’t even get me started on All That Jazz losing to Kramer vs Kramer ten years earlier.