“Let’s all be on the right side of history,” a jubilant Spike Lee said Sunday night as he accepted his Oscar. He needn’t have worried. Hollywood seems to have gotten the message.
For the most part, at least.
I’d have preferred seeing the biggest award, Best Picture, go to Lee’s razor-sharp “BlacKkKlansman” (because of its excellence) or even the comic-book extravaganza “Black Panther” (because of its massive impact on the movie business) rather than the actual winner, “Green Book.” But think about it: Out of the eight Best Picture nominees, three black-themed films? Plus Alfonso Cuaron’s lyrical “Roma,” about a dark-skinned indigenous maid working in Mexico City?
Hollywood finally managed to produce an awards show that might legitimately be called Oscars Not-So-White. The broadcast, blessedly lacking a host, featured such a diverse group of presenters and winners that at times it almost looked like the NAACP Image Awards, or perhaps the Hispanic Heritage Awards. Actor Samuel L. Jackson handed the gold statuette for Best Adapted Screenplay to his friend Lee, who leapt into Jackson’s arms. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro opened the Best Director envelope and was delighted to see “a name I can pronounce,” that of Cuaron.
Only the Best Picture award to “Green Book” reminded us that the motion picture industry’s wokeness is a work in progress.
There’s certainly nothing objectionable about the theme of racial reconciliation that “Green Book” ably presents, and the movie’s stars — Best Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali and Best Actor nominee Viggo Mortensen — are great artists in their prime. But there’s also nothing that feels particularly relevant about the film right now.
“Green Book” flips the script of an earlier Best Picture winner, “Driving Miss Daisy,” making the white character the low-status chauffeur and the black character the high-status passenger. But the message is no less simplistic.
Yes, of course, we all share a common humanity that transcends boundaries of race. Hollywood loves to congratulate itself for films, like “Green Book,” that deliver this feel-good message. But what does that actually teach anybody in the Age of Trump? If soothing nostrums had the power to vanquish white supremacy and dismantle structural racism, we’d all be joining hands and singing choruses of “Kumbaya.”
Instead, we awoke Monday to a tweet from President Trump blasting Lee for his acceptance speech and what Trump called a “racist hit on your President.”
What Lee had said was that the 2020 presidential contest was rapidly approaching and that we should all “make the moral choice between love versus hate.” There was nothing in his remarks that could remotely be seen as a “racist hit” on anybody, much less on Trump, who was not attacked or even named. But Lee, of course, is African-American, which is evidently why Trump went after him.
“BlacKkKlansman” is about a time and place where racism was confronted with power and guile, and without apology. That’s the kind of lesson we need to learn in 2019, and it would have been my choice for Best Picture.
Lee also should have won Best Picture in 1990 — the year “Driving Miss Daisy” won — for “Do the Right Thing,” which somehow wasn’t even nominated. After Sunday’s ceremony, Lee quipped, “I’m snakebit. Every time somebody is driving somebody, I lose.”
My other candidate for the grand prize was “Black Panther,” not because I considered it any sort of cinematic triumph but because of its tremendous impact in the entertainment world. The truism that a movie with a black director and practically an all-black cast could never set any box-office records turned out to be untrue. “Black Panther” is the ninth-highest-grossing film in history worldwide; the highest-grossing film of 2018 in the United States and Canada; the highest-grossing superhero film of all time … the list goes on and on.
“Black Panther” stars Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan are now top-shelf leading men. The rest of the cast is suddenly in high demand. For African-American filmmakers in Hollywood, “Black Panther” didn’t open doors. It blew them away.
Cuaron’s “Roma” was meant to open not doors but eyes, showing us the travails and inner life of a Mesoamerican migrant who quietly works as a domestic. Cuaron refrained from commenting on Trump’s border wall Sunday night, preferring, like Lee, to let his eloquent work do the talking.
I don’t mind being explicit, though. We have a president who wants to Make America White Again. This year’s Oscars held a mirror to a proudly diverse nation; and showed why Trump’s reactionary crusade is doomed to fail.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.