July 17, 2019

Oscars nominate problematic movies

I have been a devoted fan of the Academy Awards for years. I have counted down the days to the announcement of nominees and, of course, the Oscars award show. However, in recent years, I have been incredibly disappointed in the movies that have gotten far more praise than they deserve.

This year, the movie “Green Book” is nominated for five Oscars including best picture. I saw this movie in theaters knowing absolutely nothing about the film other than it dealt with racism in some capacity. I saw the movie after it won best motion picture- musical or comedy at the Golden Globes over other great films that I had already seen like “The Favourite” and “Vice.” Both films are also nominated for best picture at the Oscars.

The movie follows the true story of Tony Vallelonga, an Italian-American chauffeur/bodyguard from the Bronx, and Dr. Don Shirley, the black pianist Vallelonga is hired to drive and protect on a concert tour through the deep South in 1962. Full of odd couple comedy mixed with casual racism, the film kept me cringing in the theater.

Somehow a true story about racism in the 1960s completely glosses over racial issues. Vallelonga plays the white savior time and again “saving” Shirley from racist run-ins with the police and robbers as they journey through the deeply segregated south of 1962.

Shirley’s character is sophisticated and out of touch with the simple life that poor Italian-American Vallelonga and many African-Americans at the time were living in. There is a weird back and forth between the two characters where Shirley gradually teaches Vallelonga not to be racist and appreciate the finer things in life while Vallelonga teaches Shirley how to eat fried chicken and other activities he “should know how to do” as a black person.

The film suggests that centuries of racism can be solved by individuals of different races and backgrounds finding common ground with each other. Other Hollywood films like “Driving Miss Daisy” that have been critically acclaimed for addressing racism miss the point and leave us with a few laughs and some heartwarming moments but do not address the bigger systemic issues. The film gives white audiences a sense of relief that we’ve come so far from the days of blatantly using racial slurs and not sharing the same water fountains with black people.

On the flipside, “Blackkklansman,” another true story about Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer at the Colorado Springs police department who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1970s, looks at white supremacy from the past to present day. The film doesn’t try to trap racism in a vortex of the past, rather it suggests maybe we’ve been here all along and little has changed. This film also received a best picture nomination.

It is worth mentioning “If Beale Street Could Talk,” that was nominated for 3 Oscars, but did not receive a best picture nomination. Despite the best picture snub, I would argue it is one of the best films of the year.

Besides the breathtaking cinematography and musical score, the film looks at racial issues through a romantic story of two lovers living in 1970s New York. Their love exists despite a world full of hate that works to keep them apart. Fonny, the male love interest, is falsely accused of a crime he did not commit. While the film focuses on the pure love Fonny and Tish have for each other, the audience is confronted with the harsh reality of a corrupt criminal justice system, police brutality and other systemic drivers of racism.

The Academy Awards struggle to avoid nominating problematic movies. Even just last year, “The Shape of Water” took home the best picture award despite the problematic rhetoric in the movie surrounding the disabled and deaf community.

Not everyone sees the same movies to be problematic as someone else might, but I still believe the Hollywood Foreign Press can do better when nominating and selecting the winners for the best achievements in film each year.

Films should not be rewarded for shining a light on a bigger societal issue in a problematic way just because audiences responded well to it. However, this issue is bigger than simply award shows.

Hollywood has a bad habit of producing films like “Green Book” that puts issues like racism into a glossy historical memoir of something that happened in years past with no thoughtful commentary on how the issues persist to today. My hope is that as society continues to progress, Hollywood will recognize and care about the problems in the movies they fund before they get too far in production.

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