Entertainment

Why 'Green Book' Winning Best Picture Is a Step Back for the Oscars

'Green Book' | Universal Pictures
'Green Book' | Universal Pictures

Even as Julia Roberts walked out to present Best Picture at the Oscars last night, it still felt like any of the eight nominees could have won. The awards had played out mostly as expected, but perhaps the Original Screenplay win earlier in the night was a tell: When Samuel L. Jackson opened that envelope and announced Green Book, a look of dismay crossed his face. Roberts wasn't so visibly distressed when she delivered the news that Peter Farrelly's comedy about race relations in the 1960s had won the night's top prize, but the blowback online and from some corners of the Dolby Theatre was swift.

Green Book didn't win the most Oscars of the night -- that honor would dubiously go to Bohemian Rhapsody, which racked up four -- but it did come away with three trophies. For Best Picture, as well as Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali and Best Original Screenplay. Directed by the man best known for making Dumb and Dumber with his brother Bobby, the film charts the friendship between Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian bouncer, and his employer, the black pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), as the former drives the latter around the segregated South on a concert tour.

Based on the life of co-writer Nick Vallelonga's father, Green Book's accuracy has been called into question by the living members of Shirley's family -- just one of the many complaints that emerged about its narrative over the course of the awards season. The most prominent one was that its "we fixed racism" message made to put white people at ease prioritizes Tony's story at the expense of Don's, and brushes over the realities of the actual Green Book, a document with deep historical import. A parody from Showtime's Desus and Mero -- a trailer for a fake movie called The Greenest Book -- summed up the issues pretty succinctly: "From the producers of Green Book comes the story of a white man who had the courage to know a black person."

A Twitter thread emerged after the victory, with The Atlantic's Jemele Hill and others tackling Green Book's hypocrisy.

It's hard to know just who in the Academy's membership voted for Green Book, but to an outsider, its crowning felt like a huge step backwards. While the voting body has made significant efforts to diversify its membership in recent years, the clumsy movie's victory feels like a win for the old guard. Green Book, in both design and messaging, is coated in cobwebs, especially compared to fellow nominees like Black Panther, Roma, The Favourite, and BlacKkKlansman. Just look at the past Best Picture wins to which it's getting compared: The easiest historical parallel to make is Driving Miss Daisy, the victor 30 years ago. In 1989, while Miss Daisy triumphed, Spike Lee's still-vital Do The Right Thing, a movie that doesn't placate anyone, didn't even get a Best Picture nomination.

That precedent felt incredibly relevant last night as it was echoed in Green Book's win, which was at the expense of Lee's BlacKkKlansman. Lee, who had won his long overdue first Oscar for Adapted Screenplay earlier in the night, was reportedly so frustrated by the final result that he tried to leave the ceremony. Holding a glass of champagne and taking swigs from it, Lee addressed his perturbation in the press room. "I'm snakebit," he said. "Every time somebody's driving somebody, I lose." Asked specifically about his reaction to the win, he made an analogy to his beloved New York Knicks: "I thought I was court side at the Garden. The ref made a bad call." Lee continued to gleefully express his disapproval as he hit the Vanity Fair afterparty.

Meanwhile, members of Green Book team were still answering questions about its truthfulness backstage. Vallelonga told reporters that he didn't speak to Shirley's family on Shirley's request. “I wish I could have reached out to Don Shirley’s family," he said. "I didn’t even know they really existed until after we were making the film.”

The Oscars are frequently remembered for bad choices as much as for good ones. And amid some truly thrilling moments, Green Book's win felt like a classic example of this organization at its most staid. It's a Best Picture that will go down in history, but not for the reasons anyone wants.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.