“Green Book” Oscar Controversy: Keep Driving Hard Spike, You’re Making a Difference

Spike Lee held nothing back after the Oscars ceremony. His criticism of the Academy for their selection of “Green Book” as best picture included an astute observation that “every time someone’s driving somebody I lose.” This was a reference to the 1990 loss of his classic film “Do the Right Thing” to the pleasant and familiar “Driving Miss Daisy.”

Lee’s 2018 film “BlacKkKlansman” was nominated for the top award this year but never seemed to be the frontrunner. When he took the golden statue for best adapted screenplay early in the evening, it seemed possible that the Academy might also award the film best picture. Of course, “Green Book” had taken the best original screenplay award the same evening, which was a surprise to many.

Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” was nominated for best picture this year.

Best picture was a hotly contested category this year, with unique and challenging films competing against popular and crowd-pleasing ones. “Green Book,” like another nominee “Black Panther,” was a broad audience charmer. But the movie, about a white driver and his African-American musician employer, drew criticism for perpetuating the “white savior” narrative. While this read of the film is understandable, I responded positively to “Green Book’s” message of friendship and understanding.

But best picture? No way! My pick was “Roma,” as the year’s best film, and I thought the moody and quietly contemplative “First Man” should have, at least, been nominated for the top prize. The Academy has consistently shown that easier to digest narratives fare better than difficult ones. This is why “Moonlight’s” victory was so important.

A small picture, writer/director Barry Jenkins’ 2017 win, that was marred by an envelop mishap, proved that the Academy could take serious notice of movies that focused on underserved populations, telling their stories in a complex, intellectual, and moving way. “Moonlight” was a true American epic, as it spanned decades and beckoned us to feel an intimate connection for an African-American man coming to grips with his sexuality. The structure of “Green Book,” on the other hand, is anything but complex, falling securely into traditional Hollywood story-telling.

Mahershala Ali won the best supporting actor in 2017 for “Moonlight.”

While Lee might be justified in his outrage, I submit that a win for “BlacKkKlansman” would not have been as significant as, say, a victory for “Black Panther.” Just last year the Academy rewarded “The Shape of Water” as best picture. That movie was a science fiction horror entry from the gifted mind of Guillermo del Toro.

But even though the fantasy genre elements of “Water” made it a unique best movie, similar in some respects to the win of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in 2004, “Black Panther” was a popular blockbuster that featured a largely all African-American cast. Giving the top award to a superhero film that celebrated diversity so exquisitely would have been a real game changer. It may have also helped to quell the plan for a popular movie Oscar category. Arguably, with its significant reach to viewers of all stripes, a “Panther” victory would have put an indelible stamp on its serious call to address racial inequality.

Octavia Spencer was nominated for her work in Oscar winner “The Shape of Water.”

It is important to note that last year Octavia Spencer was nominated for best supporting actress for her work in “The Shape of Water.” Spencer, who won the Oscar for her performance in another frowned upon Southern fried tale “The Help,” is an executive producer on “Green Book.”

While having African-Americans as producers and in front of the camera doesn’t insulate a film from criticism for racial insensitivity, the makeup of “Green Book’s” cast and crew cannot be discounted. The problem is that the movie just won best picture. Best Picture!

As “Green Book” found itself embroiled in controversy, star Viggo Mortensen unintentionally made a mess of things. In his well-meaning but less than articulate way, he proved to be a clumsy ambassador for the movie. Someone should have encouraged him to let others take the lead. In interviews, Mahershala Ali did his best in disputing the “white savior” criticism. But when Mortensen uttered the n-word at a Q&A, things got exceedingly difficult for him to control things.

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in “Green Book.”

Sure, Mortensen’s use of the word was in context and not directed as a slur toward someone; no one would say he’s a racist, but it took all discussions thereafter in a completely different direction. Instead of talking about coming together and understanding, the word itself caused immediate division. Mortensen had to apologize in an effort to cause people to move on. And what was he apologizing for? Using a word that should not be spoken by anyone, even in context. It was a lesson learned so publicly that white people everywhere uttered a collective mental “ouch.” It was a wincing self-harm that reduced a gifted and sensitive actor to rubble, but, also, served as a teaching moment evoked by, yes, the populist Oscar winner “Green Book.”

The power of the best picture designation can be felt both financially and socially. Barry Jenkins knows this all too well. Without “Moonlight” being recognized, it’s not likely that he would have been able to bring James Baldwin’s book to the big screen in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Regardless how much people scoff about the Oscars and how silly awards shows are, the Academy matters, and Spike Lee knows it. Ever since the success of “Do the Right Thing,” he’s been driving his own pictures, and as he showed us with “Blackkklansman,” he’s getting better and better behind the wheel.