A promising Oscar evening ends on a low note
A moving rendition of Shallow. A long-deserved recognition for Spike Lee. And yet, the 91st Academy Awards will be remembered for its astonishing choice for Best Film
Reportedly, it was all Spike Lee could do to not storm out of the venue upon hearing that Green Book was chosen, quite shockingly, for the Best Film Oscar. Two years ago too, it was a bit of a shock when Moonlight beat La La Land, but that was all for the right reasons. It isn’t hard to see why Spike Lee, much admired for his empowering portrayal of black America in his films, got ticked off. Less than an hour earlier, he had had much cause for rejoicing after securing his long-deserved first Oscar (Best Adapted Screenplay) for his wildly entertaining BlacKkKlansman which pulls no punches in its takedown of white supremacy. The film’s about a black policeman who tries to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, and is every bit the entertaining and bitingly provocative film its premise promises to be. When Lee won his first-ever Oscar, it seemed like, host or no host, this was going to be a memorable year. As Lee took to the stage with unbridled joy and delivered a speech in which he touched on slavery, natives, and the upcoming elections, he must not have known how much rage he was to feel barely an hour later.
He must have thought his chances rather bright of securing a Best Director or a Best Film win. Losing the Best Director Oscar to Alfonso Cuaron for Roma must not have been a big blow. Roma, after all, does its bit to further the cause of the indigenous. But when the final Oscar — for Best Film — went to Green Book (not Roma, not BlacKkKlansman, not Black Panther, not The Favourite, not even A Star is Born), my own rage was a bit of an indicator of what Spike Lee must have been feeling. It isn’t so much over BlacKkKlansman not winning it, as much it is about Green Book winning it. Peter Farrelly’s film is the sort of safe take, the sort of white saviour narrative we have traditionally been forced to tolerate. It’s a film about a racist world, about a friendship between a successful, yet trampled black pianist and his racist white driver. Infuriatingly, it’s a story that’s at all times cautious not to place the black man above the evidently racist white man. It’s a film that goes to great lengths to make the white man deserving of your empathy. The role of the white man (Viggo Mortensen) even got the Best Actor nomination, while Mahershala Ali got the Best Supporting Actor nod (which he deservedly won), showing who the film’s keener to prioritise. Apparently, we still can’t move past being proud of mushy, tentative takes on racism centred on the white male, and crafted to humanise them. Two years after bravely rewarding Moonlight over La La Land for the former’s unflinching, gut-wrenching take on black masculinity, the Academy has taken several leaps back.
And to think it all began so well when Tina Fey, Amy Pohler, and Maya Rudolph showed the Academy why the Oscars desperately needed a host. If this was a year, an opportunity, to see if the function could do away with a host, we have the answer: A resounding no. A large part of the evening involved predictable thank you speeches, with the occasional bright spot that made waking up at dawn — if you’re in India — not such a miserable idea. Spike Lee leaping into the arms of a thrilled Samuel Jackson was heartwarming to behold. Lady Gaga (who won the Oscar for Best Original Song) being moved to tears in seeming relief that for once, it wasn’t at the Grammy’s, was endearing. Even better was when she and Bradley Cooper lost themselves in a rendition of Shallow. Best of all though was Olivia Colman’s winning speech (she won the Best Actress Oscar), which burst with offhanded honesty. “This is genuinely stressful,” she opened, and followed it up with, “This is hilarious — I’ve got an Oscar!” Somewhere in between, she sneaked in self-deprecating Brit humour too: “This is not going to happen again.” Her speech — and the Academy’s choice to pick her, despite the pressure to cap Glenn Close’s previous six failed Oscar nominations with a win — was the evening’s zenith. Who knew then that an award later, the event would hit its nadir.
In support of immigrants
Rami Malek's Oscar-acceptance speech was an important moment at the 91st Academy Awards. "I am the son of immigrants from Egypt. I'm a first-generation American and part of my story is being written right now," he said. Notably, Bohemian Rhapsody, the film for which he won himself a Best Actor Oscar, is about an Indian-born boy who migrates to the United Kingdom and becomes one of the greatest frontmen in the history of rock music.
Perhaps because of the present leadership in America, and with parts of the world seeing an increase in right-wing supporters, immigrants and their importance was a running theme at the Osars. Fittingly, Roma, a film about an indigenous caretaker’s relationship with the family she works for, secured 10 nominations. An almost autobiographical story of a Mexican boy and his nanny, it has fetched its Mexican director, Alfonso Cuaron, his third Academy Award. Cuaron hugged his Mexican friend and colleague, director Guillermo Del Toro who won the Oscar last year for The Shape of Water, and went on to thank Yalitza Aparicio, the first indigenous American woman to get a Best Actress nomination. He thanked the Academy for "recognising a film about an indigenous woman, one of the seventy million domestic workers in the world without work rights." He added, "Our job is to look where others don't. This responsibility becomes much more important at a time when we are encouraged to look away."
During the evening, Ruth Carter and Hannah Beachler became the first black women to win Oscars for costume design and production design, respectively (ending a 30-year Oscar wait for black women in non-performing categories). Also notable is BlacKkKlansman's win for Best Adapted Screenplay, a film that gets us introspecting on the acceptance of immigrants, and more importantly, stresses on the importance of humanity. Green Book winning the Best Film Oscar raised eyebrows on account of its take on racism, but director Peter Farrelly made an important point when he said: "It’s about loving each other, despite our differences and finding out the truth about who we are." Ultimately, it’s a simple choice, as Spike Lee pointed out: "Make the moral choice between love versus hate."