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The best picture Oscar at the Academy Awards is not actually about which picture is the best.
Sure, sometimes that happens — looking back at the past eight years of awards, no one can deny the cinematic value of, say, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, Spotlight or Moonlight — but that isn’t the implicit intent.
No, the best picture Oscar tells us what the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences wants to say about itself in any given year. Judging art in any way is a fool’s errand: It’s subjective at best, subjected to the caprices of whimsy and politics more often than not, and morally bankrupt at worst.
The service that a critic provides is a steady sensibility you can calibrate yours against: “I know Hollywood Reporter chief film critic Todd McCarthy’s tastes enough to know that if he likes something, I believe I will, too.”
But an award like this can’t possibly get to truth because the system itself is flawed in ways both human and systemic. Was Roma ever going to win best picture? Probably not, as the Academy already has a ghetto for foreign-language films. Same with animated feature: Is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse less of a movie because it’s a cartoon? Doesn’t it check every box that we want of cinematic greatness? The Academy’s self-imposed rules and regulations themselves make any “honest” reckoning an accident more than par for the course.
The best picture win is part of a socio-political narrative and, increasingly, that narrative is, “Look at how woke this overwhelmingly white, male voting body is. We understand your plight, African-Americans (Green Book, 12 Years a Slave), or members of the LGBTQ community (Moonlight) or those disgusted by the Catholic Church scandal (Spotlight) or immigrants (The Shape of Water and Birdman, both helmed by Mexican directors). We hear you.” And if, in the middle of all that, they can recognize a film made about the movies itself — like The Artist or Argo — all the better.
So what’s the story of Green Book’s win? We’ve figured out that racism really sucks, that our parents were worse at it than we were, and that having one black friend makes everything okay. Green Book is, by all accounts — whether you like it or not — a problematic movie about race in America. It posits that, if only we could find a common ground, we could achieve the post-racial society some thought Barack Obama’s election would usher in.
If you’re an old, rich white dude, that’s a very attractive proposition, which sounds an awful lot like the apocryphal ‘I’d have voted for Obama for a third term if I could’ve.’ The optics of the movie imply progress: “We’ve learned so much since Driving Miss Daisy … the white person’s doing the driving.”
Frustratingly, there was another deeply flawed movie about race in America nominated for best picture: BlackkKlansman. Spike Lee’s movie also plays fast and loose with historical accuracy and also indulges in caricature and bald manipulation to make its point. But at least its point is more attuned to the black experience in America — that sometimes, the struggle may seem futile and progress seems like a carrot that keeps getting pulled away, but the struggle remains and the struggle itself has value.
It’s as if the august voters of the Academy, with the Green Book win, wanted to say that they solved racism. The reason why the Green Book win is disappointing is because that’s so incredibly far from the truth.
Marc Bernardin is a former Hollywood Reporter editor and a comic book and television writer.
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