Last Sunday night, Spike Lee won his first Oscar. At the press conference afterwards, he was asked for his reaction to Green Book winning Best Picture. At first, he demurred, but finally said: “I thought I was courtside at the Garden, and the ref made a bad call.” This was the quote that all the media jumped on, but a throwaway comment he made subsequently was even more interesting.
“Every time someone is driving somebody, I lose,” he said.
This comment was a reference to Driving Miss Daisy which won the Academy award for Best Picture in 1989. While Spike was being a bit mischievous – Do the Right Thing wasn’t actually nominated that year – you can see his point.
1991 was a different country, and they did things differently there. In Hollywood, there was no Tarantino, no Miramax, no Harvey Weinstein; the names that would – for better or worse – change Hollywood over the next decade. There was also no #MeToo, #TimesUp, or #OscarsSoWhite. And the idea that a hit Hollywood movie could consist entirely of a cast of Asian or African-Americans actors – a la Crazy White Asians and Black Panther – was unheard of.
Out of this background came Driving Miss Daisy, a film about relationship between a wealthy, white Southern woman and her African-American chauffeur that offers a simplistic and rose-tinted view of race relations. Not everybody loved the movie: a review in The New York Times said that the film had a “subtext that summons up a longing for the good old days before the civil rights movement.” And, not surprisingly, many in the African-American community were not impressed. Public Enemy skewered the movie on the track “Burn Hollywood Burn”. Lee said: “The clock is being turned backwards.” Even Morgan Freeman would later call the film “a mistake”.
But, at the time, most audiences and critics love it. And, more importantly, so did the Academy. In 1991, the Academy voters – mostly old and white – weren’t ready for the searing examination of race that Do the Right Thing offered. They liked their stories about race to have a happy ending and a lesson learned.
Flash forward to the Oscar ceremony of 2019. After the previous year’s ceremony that saw Oprah’s #MeToo speech, Frances McDormand getting all the women in the room to proudly stand up, and a roster of nominees that mirrored the diversity of American society, one would have expected this to continue. And it did. To an extent.
In 2019, three of the four Best Actor winners were of an ethnic background. However, if you look at the majority of the names on the list of nominees, there is still a noticeable lack of diversity. Not to mention that, once again, ALL of the Best Director nominees were men. And then, there’s Green Book, a movie about the real-life relationship between black jazz pianist Don Shirley and white club bouncer, Tony Vallelonga.
Looking past the film’s many controversies – Shirley’s surviving relatives calling the film “a symphony of lies”, for instance – the Academy giving Best Picture to a film like Green Book sends a powerful message. It says that, in 2019, the Academy voters – still mostly old and white – continue to dislike nuance, and prefer their stories about race to have a happy ending and a lesson learned.