The 91st Annual Academy Awards Feb. 24 were a rollercoaster for many viewers. Despite chaotic beginnings with host Kevin Hart falling through and some award category changes that were then changed back, the broadcast managed to move quickly and remain entertaining throughout.
Some awards won were well-deserved like Olivia Colman’s win for Best Actress for her role as Queen Anne in “The Favourite” or Alfonso Cuaron’s win for Best Director for Netflix’s “Roma.” Others, however, were controversial. Topping that list of controversial wins was Peter Farrelly’s (“Dumb and Dumber,” “Movie 43”) period-piece “Green Book” taking home Best Picture.
The film is based on the true story of Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). The unlikely duo travelled together in the ’60s through Jim Crow South for over a year while Shirley toured the country playing piano. Throughout the movie, this time period is condensed down to around two months.
Since its win at the Golden Globes earlier this year, the controversy around the film has been growing and growing. While the film was written by a descendant of Vallelonga, the Shirley family has gone on record to dispute the film’s accuracy. The film claims that Shirley was not in contact with his family, and they rarely knew where he was, however, this has been refuted by the family. His brother Maurice Shirley panned the film as a “symphony of lies.”
In his defense, writer Nick Vallelonga was told by Shirley not to reach out to the family when he approached him about making this film. He claims he was unaware they existed, and that Shirley did not want him to make the film until he was dead (Shirley passed away in 2013).
On top of this familial scuff, creators behind the film have been called out as well. Writer Nick Vallelonga has been accused of Islamophobia based on some old tweets (it should be noted that Mahershala Ali is a practicing Muslim). Director Peter Farrelly has also confirmed his past sexual misconducts, having repeatedly exposed himself in meetings.
The film has attracted most of its attention for the way it handled race throughout. The film wants you to believe it’s a story of racial harmony and a model for how we can reach out to each other and overcome our differences. Sadly, that story is hard to tell over the background of the Jim Crow Era.
Tony Vallelonga is portrayed as a racist, but a “mild” one. The film tries to show him slowly gaining respect for Shirley as he guards him from the more belligerent, rural racists they encounter. It’s a particularly strenuous watch and one that would not have been crafted the same way if more people of color were involved.
“Green Book” falls into the easy trappings of Hollywood’s white savior narrative. Vallelonga is put in the center of this film and is largely the voice talking about race within this film. He is constantly teaching Shirley things about his blackness and even goes as far to say that he, a white Italian man, is blacker than Shirley is.
It is obvious that this film was made by people who have not had to carry the burden of darker skin around in society. The conversations about race are like watching car crashes, horrifying but you can’t pull away for hope that somehow it might right itself before full impact.
Honestly, it is a film that could have succeeded in an earlier time. A time when black voices weren’t given an opportunity to be creative on this scale. But, that time has passed, and it is sad to see a whitewashed narrative of race prevail over the works of black artists who are having more nuanced and timely conversations about race.
In that spirit, here are some films released in 2018 that handle racial topics more deftly than “Green Book.” These are the works of art we should be giving our time and accolades to instead.
“Black Panther” directed by Ryan Coogler
Marvel films have become the mainstay blockbusters in this day and age. We get about two most years, and the quality of these films can vary immensely. Best Picture nominee “Black Panther” struck a chord by being both good and the first Marvel movie to be helmed by a black director and feature a mostly black cast (Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o).
“Black Panther” manages to be a fun movie featuring a character that black children can look up to and see themselves in — something that many of these children have missed out on. It also incorporates a beautiful score and soundtrack that take heavy inspirations from African music and hip-hop.
“BlacKkKlansman” directed by Spike Lee
Spike Lee’s newest joint was nominated for Best Picture as well this year. It tells the story of two police officers, one black and one Jewish (John David Washington and Adam Driver respectively), who team up to infiltrate and take down the KKK.
The script and performances are both compelling and fun. Most importantly, it features strong, impactful messages about race and makes the case for a variety of different schools of black thought on what it takes to achieve equality. Though some critiqued its depiction of police as allies to African Americans, the film itself attempts to come to terms with this and there is still a lot of good in there.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” directed by Barry Jenkins
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is the film adaption of a work by novelist and playwright James Baldwin. Baldwin’s story dives into the intricacies of racial profiling and teenage pregnancy under the guise of a love story. It is part bliss, part living nightmare brought to life by Jenkin’s direction and screenplay.
Barry Jenkins’ last film, “Moonlight,” won Best Picture at the Oscars. But his follow up was largely ignored in the awards conversation this year, exempting the honors for Regina King’s performance as a supporting actress. It is a large oversight because this film is aching and transcendent. You feel for every character as they struggle to make it through the day in ways that many African Americans still do.
“Blindspotting” directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada
“Blindspotting” is a film that unfortunately went under many people’s radars this year. Starring actor/rapper Daveed Diggs of “Hamilton” fame, the film follows Diggs’ character Collin and his friendship with Miles (Rafael Casal) as the two try to navigate the police brutality around them, their own issues at home and the racial dynamic between them.
It’s an excellent film with jaw-dropping performances and moments of intensity that stick with the viewer long after the credits roll. It’s also an example of how a non-African American director can still tell a great story about race when collaborating with people who know what they’re doing.
“The Hate U Give” directed by George Tillman Jr.
Based on the young adult novel of the same name, “The Hate U Give” is a story of how police brutality is affecting modern urban African American communities. Protagonist Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) witnesses the death of a friend by the hands of a policeman. The film follows her reconciliation of these events and the movement it sparks in the community.
This film features an amazing black cast, including Stenberg, Issa Rae and Common, and promotes the work of black author Angie Thomas and the late, great rapper Tupac. It elegantly handles complex themes like codeswitching, and displays multiple perspectives on police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. It also bites back at the same microaggressions that run free in “Green Book.”
“Sorry to Bother You” directed by Boots Riley
Boots Riley impresses with this psychedelic, symbolism-stuffed film starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson. In what is by far one of the trippiest, wildest and most progressive films of the year, Boots tackles issues of race, class, economic inequality, animal cruelty and more in clever and unique ways.
The final product is a little rough around the edges and benefits from multiple viewings but what the film is trying to do is immensely impressive and where it succeeds it does so in unforgettable ways.