The Academy fooled us all

Joshua Lloyd, Editor-in-Chief

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The Academy Awards really had us going this year. On Sunday, Feb. 24, it looked like the Oscars were finally going to make good on their promise to reward movies that push boundaries and strike a blow for inclusion and equality in filmmaking.

Case in point, the winners and nominees were noticeably less #OscarsSoWhite this time around. Sony Animation’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which has Afro-Latino teen Miles Morales as its hero, broke the Pixar spell and won the gold for Best Animated Feature.

“Black Panther” brought home Marvel Studios’ first Oscar wins in the MCU’s ten-year existence, winning for Best Production Design, Best Costume Design and Best Original Score. Production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter are the first black women in Oscar history to win in their respective categories.

Mahershala Ali scored his second Best Supporting Actor trophy in as many years for his superb take on classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley in “Green Book.”

Regina King made good on her first Oscar nod for her searing performance in “If Beale Street Could Talk” (another Barry Jenkins masterpiece). Her incredible showing as Sharon Rivers, a mother fighting to rescue her daughter’s fiancé from misplaced allegations of rape, made her the woman to beat in the Best Supporting Actress field.

In the feel-good moment of the night, Spike Lee won his first competitive Oscar and jumped into presenter Samuel L. Jackson’s arms in elation. Lee, who shared the Best Adapted Screenplay win with his “BlacKkKlansman” cowriters, has plenty of reason to celebrate. His win came thirty years after his first nomination (for “Do the Right Thing”) and twenty-two years after his second (for the documentary “4 Little Girls”).

For his impeccable Freddie Mercury imitation, Rami Malek joined the elite company of Best Actor winners (and the more-elite company of people who have tumbled on the Oscars stage). Olivia Colman and her royally rambunctious take on Queen Anne upset the likes of Glenn Close and Lady Gaga in the Best Actress field.

It was shaping up to be an Oscars ceremony we could all cheer for, despite the slew of controversies and mishaps that made the road to the hostless 91st Academy Awards a bumpy one. And then, at the moment we were all waiting for, everything fell apart.

As we watched the final presentation of the night and heard Julia Roberts name the only Best Picture nominee more undeserving than “Bohemian Rhapsody,” we waited with bated breath for someone to run onstage and tell her she got it all wrong. But the “Moonlight”/“La La Land” moment never came. The credits rolled and the show faded to black. It was the ultimate display of Academy hypocrisy.

Julia Roberts didn’t screw up the Best Picture reveal. The Academy did. Best Picture is supposed to go to the movie that best encapsulates the year in cinema, the film that serves as the barometer for what the motion pictures of today should represent. “Green Book” is not that movie.

“Green Book” is a heartwarming odd-couple buddy comedy (admittedly with two great leads in Ali and Viggo Mortensen) that doubles as a vague commentary on the systemic racism that persists in America. But where nominees like “Black Panther” and “BlacKkKlansman” stare themes like oppression, racism and isolationism right in the face, “Green Book” turns a blind eye.

It doesn’t dig into the sheer brutality that defined race relations in the southern United States for most of American history. It treats institutionalized discrimination as something that can be solved by sharing a few buckets of fried chicken. Like fellow unworthy nominee “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Green Book” refuses to look at the less sanitized side of its subject matter.

Peter Ramsey’s period dramedy wants to uplift audiences, not teach them. “Green Book” fools uneducated audiences into leaving the theater and thinking they’ve learned something about American racism. In other words, it’s nothing revolutionary. And for all its ham-fisted overtones of social progress and equality, it still features a black man playing second fiddle (or piano) to a white guy.

Three nominees stood head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field this year: “Roma,” “Black Panther” and “BlacKkKlansman.” Any of those options would have been infinitely better than the “Green Book” victory that started to feel dreadfully inevitable as the night wore on.

“Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white Netflix drama with dialogue entirely in Spanish and Mixtec, is a heartrending tribute to the forgotten women of the world. “Netflix movie” status be damned; “Roma” is a cinematic milestone, foreign-language or otherwise.

Box-office smash “Black Panther” had already made history as the first superhero movie to score a Best Picture nod, something that eluded Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” ten long years ago. The saga of Wakanda and King T’Challa, a movie that transcends the superhero label while celebrating diversity, smashing stereotypes and condemning xenophobia, is groundbreaking in every sense of the word.

That leaves “BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee’s kickass true-story adaptation of a black cop who infiltrated the 1970s Ku Klux Klan. It’s 2018’s most brutal, unflinching commentary on the underlying hate that has resurged in Trump’s America. The end even features scintillating footage from the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. That “Green Book” victory is an insult to everything “BlacKkKlansman” stands for.

This year’s Academy Awards could have been game-changing. Instead, they built themselves up to wimp out when it mattered most.

No wonder Spike Lee flipped out when Julia Roberts announced “Green Book” as 2018’s best movie. The rest of the Dolby Theatre crowd should have done the same.