The Academy Awards show is often a yawner. It’s so much fun to see the gorgeous clothes, the familiar faces, the bright lights and sometimes, the hosts. But it’s also unbearably long, so this year we planned not to watch. Of course we turned it on–just for a minute–to see how the planners were going to open the show without a host.
And we stayed until the end.
The show moved faster, and speech limits were more strictly enforced, but the real reason we stayed was because we’d seen almost all the movies nominated for Best Picture. We missed The Favourite, which we’ll stream once we can, but we’d seen all the others, loved some, wondered about some. So we were interested to see which films the Academy also loved.
Just before the announcement of Best Picture, my husband and I looked at each other and tried to predict. I couldn’t even name my own favorite. I particularly enjoyed Black KlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book, and Black Panther. But could I choose among them? Not really, because…wait for this…they are ALL “feel good” movies, the brush with which Green Book, which triumphed in the Best Picture category, was repeatedly tarred.
Because, you see, if a movie makes you feel good, then it’s NO good. Didn’t you know?
Let’s backtrack. Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic about Freddie Mercury, who died of AIDS, ends with his triumphant reunion with Queen at Live Aid. Black Panther extols the strength and beauty of African people. BlacKkKlansman manages to be humorous as it tells the deadly serious story of the first black police officer in Colorado Springs and his masquerade to expose local white supremacists.
All four of these movies are movies that make you feel better about the world as you leave the theater. And if you distill the criticism–and there’s a lot of it–that’s what many critics objected to about Green Book.
Racism is a huge problem. Let’s start with that indisputable premise. Now here’s another premise. No movie, no matter how brilliant, can tackle a social problem that vast, wide, and rooted, and offer solutions or even easy insights. Movies are finite. They, like books, must have a narrow focus. The camera zooms in on the major characters in a story, much the way a novelist does, and slowly shows us their hearts.
Should the movie have made a much greater statement about Dr. Don Shirley’s homosexuality?
One major critic thought so. But was it a movie about one man’s sexuality? No, it wasn’t. It was based on a true story. The movie made a quick, effective statement about how much harder it was to be gay AND black, but since that wasn’t the point of the movie, the filmmakers moved on.
Should the movie have made white people feel even worse about their racist history?
I’m not sure how it could have. The title alone, Green Book, refers to the very real book that African-American people used in the 1960s to find places where they were allowed to stay and eat.
Places where they were allowed to stay and eat.
You know, what I mean, right? The same way pet owners today go to websites to find hotels and restaurants where their dog will be welcome? The filmmakers contrasted those places with the ones where Tony Lip, the white driver, was allowed to stay. They did so without beating us over the head, making it that much more effective.
Did you know about the real Green Book? I did, but never the way the message was hammered in during this film. After all, I grew up in the segregated South and I didn’t need it. I am white.
Did the Green Book make a point? You decide. And of course, the film was crammed with subtle and not so subtle examples. Tony Lip throwing away perfectly good drinking glasses because two black repairmen had drunk from them. The outhouse where Dr. Shirley is relegated in a country club right before he, dressed in a tuxedo, is set to perform. The broom closet masquerading as his dressing room. The sign that said “No colored allowed in town after sunset.” (I may be paraphrasing.) And one of my favorites? A scene at the very end where Tony, racist to the core at the film’s beginning, turned to a friend at his table and told him not to use an unflattering term for black people.
Should the move have featured Dr. Shirley more and Tony the Lip less? Did it avoid that because featuring black people is risky?
I can’t speak for anyone but myself. But to me? While this was both men’s story, the very best stories are about change. Had the hearts and minds of both men ended up exactly where they began, this would have been a travelogue about life on the road in the 1960s. But it was so much more. Tony was not the same man at the end of the film. Of the two, he changed the most. And so as a novelist, concentrating a good bit of the story on Tony makes sense to me. Dr. Shirley changed, too, but let’s face it. Tony had the longest distance to travel, and not just in that car.
The movie’s greatest crime? Viewers really do feel good after they see it.
And that, according to some critics, is the crux of the matter. No movie about racism should make you feel good afterwards.
But doesn’t that logic come down to this? That critics believe film goers are exactly like readers who enjoy genre fiction? Do any of these critics actually believe that those of us who loved this movie are idiotic enough to believe that it showed racism actually ended back in 1962 because Dr. Shirley came to dinner at Tony’s house? Do we believe that viewers who still harbor racist attitudes will suddenly see themselves for who they are and take the righteous path from that moment forward? Do we believe that racism then and racism now will be changed forever by this story?
I don’t believe any of those things.
Here’s what I do believe. That this award-winning movie, about two men who get to know each other because of their close proximity, was never meant to be an allegory. The filmmakers never set out to tell a universal story or one guaranteed to end racism on the spot.
The filmmakers, like creative people everywhere who uphold their personal values whenever they write, paint, quilt, film, or compose, were telling the story of two men who grew into friends. Despite all the barriers. Despite their own innate prejudices. Despite the crazy world they lived in.
Two men, one story. And with luck, some piece of all that followed us home.