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The 91st Oscars: Three Steps Forward, One Giant Step Backward

We no longer live in an age where award shows simply praise the best in entertainment. Now, they allow and encourage people to engage in conversations about various social issues and give celebrities a platform to defend their rights.

The Oscars, more than any other award show, is notorious for being predominately white, male and heteronormative in terms of nominees and winners, which has led to extreme outrage in recent years, especially.

This year seemed different. It really did. After the eight nominees were released for best picture, it seemed The Academy was gearing their selections towards films with underlying social commentary. Seven of the eight nominees all contributed to the dialogue on race, sexuality or ethnicity.

Early in the night, it seemed this could finally be the year where things would turn around and the black community would finally gain the respect it has so long deserved from The Academy.

First Step Forward: Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler pave the way for black women

As Kyle Buchanan noted, only three black women in the history of The Academy Awards have won for anything other than acting, two of which happened tonight. Those two women were Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler. Carter became the first black person to win in the Best Costume Design category for her work on Black Panther. Moments later, Beachler became the first black woman to win for Best Achievement in Production Design for her work on Black Panther as well, an award which she shared with Jay Hart.

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Second Step Forward: Mahershala Ali makes double history

Ali became the first black actor and the first Muslim man to win two awards in the Best Supporting Actor Category. After his supporting role in Moonlight, Ali quickly won over America’s hearts. His role as pianist Don Shirley in Green Book only deepened the nation’s love and appreciation for him. Ali joined Denzel Washington as the only two black people to ever win multiple acting Oscars.

Third Step Forward: Spike Lee finally wins

Spike Lee has been an icon in the film industry for decades. After years of waiting, Lee was finally recognized for his work on BlacKkKlansman and awarded Best Adapted Screenplay. Lee was also nominated for Best Director and had the chance to become the first black person to ever win that category but fell short to Roma’s Alfonso Cuarón.

One Step Backward: Green Book wins despite controversy

While the black community did indeed have some major victories Sunday night, the choice of Green Book as best picture was yet another blow and showed that The Academy will remain stuck in its ways.

Green Book and Roma were the two top contenders heading into the night. Both spoke about important issues but were received in very different ways. Roma was seen as uplifting, and while Green Book was intended to have the same impact, many critics believe it just missed the mark. Rather than being an anticipated step toward inclusivity in Hollywood, the film resulted in extreme backlash for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, the film discusses the black struggle in the American south during the time of Jim Crow, yet it was predominately created by white men. When the crew paraded on stage to accept the award, you could see a group comprised of mainly older, white men, which in no way reflects the intent of the movie.

Secondly, many people critiqued the way Green Book understated the intensity of racism in the South during the time of Jim Crow. People reacted to the way that racism was encapsulated in the film and many believe the film disregarded the severity of what so many people experienced during segregation.

Thirdly, many believe the film understated the necessity of the Green Book itself. The Negro Motorist Green Book was an annual guide book for African American travelers on locations to avoid facing extreme racism in the South. While the movie is named after the historic creation, it is barely referenced at all, despite being crucial to many travelers.

Finally, even more controversy was stirred up around the film due to two released statements from members of the crew. Viggo Mortensen who plays Tony Lip – the white, Italian chauffeur and lead in the film – while talking about racial progress in America in a post-screening discussion, said, “For instance, no one says n— anymore.” It was then discovered that Nick Vallelonga, the scriptwriter of the film, stated an offensive claim to witnessing Muslim people cheering during 9/11 in response to a tweet from Donald Trump. The tweet directly impacted the film, as Mahershala Ali is a practicing Muslim. Since, both men have profusely apologized, but the racist claims are ironically associated with a film intended to break the racial barriers in Hollywood.

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Ultimately, even the critics agree that Green Book was a very well-made movie with a touching story, but the film misrepresented many aspects of black culture in America. In the climate we live in, award shows like the Oscars are extremely intentional about trying to become more inclusive. The Academy likely saw choosing Green Book as a way toward this inclusivity, when in the end, it just drove people further apart. Organizations like The Academy have the power to make social statements and must take into account what they are saying with their choices. They were so close but ultimately failed again, showing progress is still years away.

Lia Assimakopoulos

Northwestern '22

TBD
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