Green Book’s Oscar shows Hollywood still doesn’t get race

Viggo Mortensen, left, and Mahershala Ali in Green Book

It’s now four years since the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag put Hollywood movie-making in the dock over its failure to acknowledge black achievement. A lot has happened since: Moonlight memorably won the best picture Oscar two years ago; Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis have won supporting actor prizes; and Jordan Peele has a best original screenplay gong. Alongside them, several other black artists have been nominated.

But the OscarsSoWhite campaign was not meant merely as a tick-box exercise in counting the number of nominations. It was meant to make Hollywood rethink how it tells black people’s stories, and to reward black artists in the best possible way – by giving them the chance to have their voices heard.

So it feels like a major step backwards that this year Hollywood gave its most prestigious Oscar – best picture – to a nostalgic tale of a racist white driver somehow “saved” by his black passenger. Though the driver (Tony Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen) is a former bouncer, and the passenger (Don Shirley, played by Ali) a concert pianist, it’s Mortensen who is centre-stage, and received a nomination for best actor. Though Ali did win an Oscar, it was in the supporting actor category. The movie is written by Vallelonga’s real-life son and the award was accepted on stage by its white-dominated producers.

The movie, set in the early 1960s, much of it in the racially segregated southern states, fits almost perfectly into the Hollywood template. That is, black movies should be set a long time in the past, when things were really bad for black folk, so the audience can leave with a nice warm feeling: “Haven’t we come a long way? Aren’t we doing so well today?”

Their enduring message is that racism is all about bigots who beat up black people and shout “nigger”. Everyone who doesn’t do that is some kind of woke hero. There’s never any lesson for modern audiences on how they may be perpetuating racism, or be blind to its subtleties. For Green Book read: Selma, Fences, Loving. Even the more enlightened movies (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk) can leave the audience feeling, “Gee, it must be miserable being black!”

That’s why it was so great to see Peele’s Get Out break the mould in 2017 (the white girlfriend’s creepy white friends all told the central black character, “You know, I voted for Obama”). Building on this, last year’s standout movie was Black Panther. Its celebration of black culture, and African-ness, has catapulted the spirit of Wakanda through the black diaspora.

Above all, what makes Green Book such a bad choice is that it’s a full 30 years since its road trip predecessor, Driving Miss Daisy, scooped the best picture Oscar. That similarly saccharine take on racism – this time using a white passenger and black driver – at least had the excuse that the world was far more ignorant then. Does Hollywood really consider a crude re-run the best it can do? It sends a message that, three decades on, it has learned nothing.

Joseph Harker is a deputy Opinion editor

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