Academy, industry still has work to do
As the Feb. 24 airing of the 91st Academy Awards rapidly approaches, the high-profile film awards show remains quagmired in a space that promotes both genuine progress and a love affair with the Academy’s customary white male dominance.
This year, the Academy made a handful of nominations that broke the mold of what is typically recognized by Hollywood. In the Best Picture category, a blockbuster Marvel superhero movie with a majority black cast, “Black Panther,” is among the list of 10 nominees. “The Favourite,” a genre-defying historical comedy with queer themes and three strong female leads was also nominated. Also breaking the mold is Yalitza Aparicio, the first indigenous Mexican woman to be nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in “Roma.”
While these strides toward greater minority and female representation in the year’s film are noteworthy, it is frustrating to see that the Academy still very much clings to conservative traditions. All of the five Best Director nominees are men. Despite a noticeable uptick in minority representation in mainstream American film, the majority of the best actor and actress nominees — with the exception of Aparicio and Rami Malek of “Bohemian Rhapsody” — are white.
The most glaring display of Hollywood’s tone-deafness and vestigial conservativism, however, lies in several of the Academy’s nominations for best picture. “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been heavily criticized for its insensitive and inaccurate portrayal of Freddie Mercury’s life, and its director, Bryan Singer, has faced a flood of sexual assault allegations dating back two decades. For both similar and different reasons, “Green Book” has proved problematic in its own right. The family of the film’s black protagonist, pianist Donald Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, has claimed that the film is constructed upon a false narrative of Shirley’s life and his relationship with the black community and the film’s white protagonist, Tony Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen.
Regardless of whether the concerns over the portrayal of these stories are valid or not, other issues still linger. “Green Book,” a story that revolves around complex racism and stereotypes, is told through the lens of its white writers and white protagonist, Vallelonga. The film’s director and co-writer, Peter Farrelly, has also admitted to repeatedly tricking coworkers into looking at his genitals in 1998, an act so pathetically juvenile for a boy of any age, let alone for a man over the age of 40.
In terms of the film itself, “Green Book” is laden with “white savior” and “magical negro” stereotypes. Vallelonga is paid to drive Shirley, a brilliant but aloof black man, through the American South for a concert tour. Vallelonga protects Shirley from the horrors of the Jim Crow era while his racism is predictably “cured” after forming a bond with his employer. It is exactly the kind of toxic, contrived, feel-good narrative that white audiences are enamoured of — one that prevents more authentic stories of American life and society from being recognized in the same light.
There is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying these films and the talented acting on display. But by considering these pictures as among the year’s finest works, the Academy sends a clear message of its willingness to overlook the obvious faults within them. For an industry that supposedly sits at the forefront of progress, the Academy should and must do better to promote and support the making of films that, at the very least, tell stories in a more authentic manner.
It makes sense that writers and directors commonly take certain liberties in creating these works in order to tell a more compelling story and appeal to a wider audience. But when these liberties and false depictions alter a film in such a way as to present audiences with a more palatable narrative, it does viewers a disservice, depriving us of a more robust, well-rounded account of important issues steeped in a broader range of perspective. Perpetually rewarding a single-minded story of the white savior signals to the industry that this is the “best” way to tell stories where racial tension is at the core.
Written by: The Editorial Board