Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
For the record, I was pulling for Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” to win a Best Picture Oscar to go along with the ones both he and the film had received Sunday night for Best Director, Best Foreign-Language Film and Best Cinematography.
The fact that it was a Netflix-produced entry would have also been a signal that things had changed in Hollywood – as much as Hollywood kept insisting it had throughout Sunday’s broadcast.
One way or another, you were led to believe that this Oscar Night was going to make history. For a while, it did. But it ultimately left you feeling that not much had changed at all.
“Green Book,” a charming, lovable and altogether conventional road movie, recycling modes from “The Odd Couple” and framing them in the dying days of Jim Crow, won Best Picture.
The movie was adored for its endearing, if ungainly interaction between its two main characters: a fastidious, erudite African American pianist (Mahershala Ali, who won his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar in two years Sunday playing Don Shirley) and the coarse, big-hearted white nightclub bouncer (Viggo Mortensen) chauffeuring him on a concert tour through the racially segregated South of the early 1960s. “Green Book’s” warmth likely touched Hollywood’s collective yearning to hit back at the present-day strain in race relations under the Trump administration.
But many critics and moviegoers believed that “Green Book” reminded them too much of the past. There were frequent comparisons between director Peter Farrelly’s comedy-drama and “Driving Miss Daisy,” which won Best Picture in 1990 and involved a similarly-fraught-but-gradually-affectionate relationship between an elderly white southerner (Jessica Tandy) and her black driver (Morgan Freeman).
These viewers argued throughout the nomination-and-voting process that if Hollywood really wanted to more emphatically challenge white supremacist thinking, there were at least two other Best Picture options on the board: “Black Panther,” Marvel Comics’ lavish, stirring cinematic rendition of its first superhero-of-color (Chadwick Boseman) and leader of a high-tech African kingdom and “BlacKkKlansman,” writer-director Spike Lee’s acerbic true-life story of a black cop (John David Washington) in 1970s Colorado going undercover to prevent a white racist gang from terrorizing black college students.
Simply put, a vote for “Green Book” represented relative safety and reassurance, while either “Black Panther” or “BlacKkKlansman” would have signaled the opposite: a bolder, brasher and more assertive reflection of Hollywood’s changing racial profile.
I share some of the disappointment, but would also remind others who preferred a win for “Black Panther” that, on many levels, the movie already proved a resounding winner because its stunning global success at the box office last year laid waste to the hoary movie-business mythology that any movie with a black cast and black-oriented themes was at best a niche-market product.
And anybody disappointed that “BlacKkKlansman” didn’t win can take heart from Lee winning his first-ever Oscar last night for Best Adapted Screenplay in collaboration with David Rabinowitz, Charlie Watchel and Kevin Willmott. From the reaction of those in attendance to Samuel L. Jackson’s startled, exuberant announcement of the winning screenplay, Hollywood seemed altogether pleased with the situation.
Indeed, the whole Oscar broadcast (which managed to get along without a host this year, after some pre-game adjustments) came across as a pep rally for progress with evening gowns and tuxes instead of cheerleader uniforms. The prevailing tone of self-congratulation was reminiscent of generations of Oscar ceremonies and at times it threatened to overwhelm some of the modest surprises of the evening, notably Olivia Coleman’s Best Actress triumph over Glenn Close, Lady Gaga, Melissa McCarthy and “Roma” newcomer Yalitza Aparicio.
But the most moving moments of the night – and in many ways the most striking evidence of true change – came earlier in the evening when Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler made movie history by being the first African Americans to win Academy Awards for costume and production design respectively, both for the film “Black Panther.”
From both these women, working in craft positions that are relatively unsung by the public, but respected within the movie industry, one could sense the struggles each of them had to be taken seriously enough to thrive in professions where it once was improbable to find anybody who looked like them.
Said Carter: “I hope through my example this means there is hope. Other people can come on in and win an Oscar just like I did.” Meanwhile, Beachler concluded her emotional acceptance speech by saying, “When you think it’s impossible, just remember to say this piece of advice I got from a very wise woman: I did my best, and my best is good enough.”
You want evidence of change? Here’s a hint: It’s not always staring at you from the screen.