The awards season is over for another year, and 2019 has been a bizarre one. The Golden Globes and the Baftas seemed to throw up different results, making the Academy Awards show more unpredictable than normal. While some of the prizes were never in serious doubt, others have left critics and viewers alike asking how committed the Academy is to change.
A lot of the awards were practically guaranteed even before the ceremony had started. Mahershala Ali winning Best Supporting Actor was never in doubt, and Free Solo was always a solid bet for Best Documentary. Roma winning Best Foreign Language Film was also unsurprising, although whether this cursed its chances of taking home the night’s biggest prize could be discussed for months. Other wins were more shocking but uncontroversial — First Man claiming Best Visual Effects over Avengers: Infinity War and, of course, Olivia Colman winning best actress for her role as Queen Anne in The Favourite, beating the odds-on favourite Glenn Close.
The most contention within the Oscars this year comes with the winner of Best Picture: Green Book. Directed by Peter Farrelly, it is hardly a trainwreck but has been criticised for the ‘white saviour’ narrative that viewers have picked up on. Green Book “lets white folks off the hook for whatever responsibility we bear for the crushing weight of systemic racism,” according to Vox critic Todd VanDerWerff.
What seems most frustrating, but perhaps also unremarkable, about Green Book’s victory is that it’s the safest option out of any of the other films nominated. It’s not that the film is terrible, but that it’s a traditional choice, especially when compared to some of the other winners from recent years. It’s telling an important story, but lacks any acute sense of self-awareness and refuses to take risks.
Green Book will not be the film that is remembered ten years down the line. The stand out nominations of 2019 include the likes of The Favourite (which has been robbed at almost every awards ceremony) and Black Panther. Both of these films brilliantly subvert typical understandings and play with the conventions of their genres, presenting their audiences with something new, engaging and — especially with The Favourite — a film of sensationally high calibre. Along with Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, these are the films of the past year that have taken the most chances and deliberately ruffled feathers.
Perhaps the Academy went for a safe choice because it is a strange year for them. Embroiled in a number of controversies and changes, from the ‘host-less’ ceremony to the scrapping of a popular film category, it could be that a mild rocking of the boat was all it took for the voting members to anchor themselves to what they saw as a safe option. If that was the logic, it has backfired badly.
Yet in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, several landmarks in representation can be seen throughout the various categories. Regina King took away an Oscar from her first nomination for If Beale Street Could Talk. Ruth Carter and Hannah Beachler have made history by becoming the first black winners of Best Costume Design and Best Production Design respectively for their work on Black Panther. Best Short Documentary went to Period. End of Sentence. As the film’s director Rayka Zehtabchi said, “I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar.” Beyond Green Book, the steps forward that have been longed for are arguably being made.
If Beale Street Could Talk director Barry Jenkins spoke to the BBC at the Independent Spirit Awards the day before the Oscars. He said that “I think all this stuff the Academy is undergoing is a period of extreme evolution… I think 5-10 years from now we’ll look back and realise the Academy [has] reshaped itself in some really amazing ways.” The Oscars are on a rocky and heavily scrutinised path to becoming better. Green Book may be seen as a step backwards, but for the likes of Jenkins and others within the industry, there remains optimism that the winners and nominees from the night signify progress that will seem all the more important in hindsight. Whether they are right or not remains to be seen, but either way the Oscars’ results — as they always have — speak volumes.
Image: Ibsan73 via Wikimedia Commons