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Green Book vs. BlacKkKlansman: Are the Oscars out of Touch?

Written by Harry Gudgin

The Academy Awards have always had a complicated relationship with race. For the most part, the Academy is made up of older white men and this is reflected in the films they choose to nominate and award. This lack of representation within the Academy came to a head in 2015 with the ‘#OscarSoWhite’ campaign. 2015 marked the first year since 1998 in which all of the nominees in the lead and supporting acting categories were white. This led managing editor, April Reign, to create the Twitter hashtag #OscarSoWhite, which was brought back a year later when the acting nominees were once again all white. This campaign brought issues of representation into the public consciousness, but these issues existed for a long time before Reign created the hashtag. As of the most recent, 91st, Academy Awards only 19 black actors and actresses have ever won Oscars in the four main acting categories. Following these controversies, many black celebrities chose to boycott the Oscars, while some implored others to join them. The Academy has since made efforts to become more inclusive, or at least do enough to appear inclusive.

In 2016, black comedian Chris Rock was chosen to host the awards. Much of his material made light of the controversy, calling the show the ‘white peoples choice awards’. While the monologue was mostly comedic, he did make something of a stand by calling for stronger representation of black people in Hollywood. Then, in 2017, the Academy added a significant group of diverse members into their ranks including Gal Gadot, Dwayne Johnson and Riz Ahmed, among others. This, coupled with Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ receiving the coveted Best Picture award in 2017, has led many people to argue that the era of #OscarSoWhite is over. I would argue this is far from the truth.

Despite the new additions, still only twenty-eight percent of the Academy voters are female and only thirteen percent are non-white. Furthermore, some groups, such as Hispanics, are even more hugely underrepresented. I believe that the Academy’s issue with representation has been further reflected at the 91st Academy Awards. Of the eight films nominated for Best Picture, a handful explored issues of race in a variety of different ways. Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman and Green Book, with Green Book going on to win the award. Green Book was seen as problematic by many due to its shallow exploration of race and heavy reliance on stock characters. Because of this, I believe Green Book’s victory is indicative of the Academy’s loss of touch with today’s films and the way in which they explore certain themes. Contrastingly, BlacKkKlansman was a timely, stylish and expertly crafted film that more accurately captured the black experience in America.

Green Book, while presenting a progressive, anti-racist ideology is actually problematic in its representation of race. The film tells the true story of world class African-American pianist, Dr. Don Shirley as he embarks on a concert tour of the deep south in the 1960’s. Shirley hires Tony Lip, an Italian-American bouncer, as his driver cum bodyguard, leading the two develop an unlikely friendship. The film features incredible performances from both Mahershala Ali’s Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen’s Tony Lip, but where the film falls short, is in its shallow exploration of race. Ultimately the film claims to tackle racism while decentralising black characters and providing audiences with a white perspective on black issues. With a white protagonist and white director, the film has a distinctly white voice which is why it falls short in exploring race from multiple points of view.

Historically, black actors in Hollywood cinema have been seen as little more than supporting characters, who conform to offensive and archaic stereotypes. These stock characters include the carefree and comedic ‘sambo’ or the violent and aggressive ‘black buck’, among many others. Ali’s Don Shirley falls in to a group of characters known as ‘magical negroes’. This term refers to a stock character who possesses great skills or insight and who’s roll in the film is to serve the white protagonist. In Shirley’s case, this is his exceptional piano playing ability and his intelligence. The film’s protagonist, Tony Lip also conforms to an archaic archetype known as the ‘white saviour’. The white saviour is a character who acts to help non-white people, often for self-serving purposes. This is certainly true of Lip, who is forced to save Dr. Shirley when he’s attacked by a group of white men. 

“Historically, black actors in Hollywood cinema have been seen as little more than supporting characters, who conform to offensive and archaic stereotypes”

In the beginning of the film Tony is out of work and struggling to get by. In one scene, he earns money by entering a hot dog eating contest as he has run out of other options. Contrastingly, Dr. Shirley is doing very well. He lives in an extravagant apartment and dresses particularly luxuriously. It could be inferred from this contrast that racism in America at this time can’t be that bad if Dr. Shirley is able to live a life of luxury while Tony struggles to put food on the table. Of course, this is completely inaccurate of the time and a simplistic view of race in America.

Another issue with the film is Shirley’s seeming lack of knowledge of black culture. Throughout the course of their journey Tony teaches Dr. Shirley about Little Richard and Aretha Franklin of whom, we are led to believe, Don, a professional musician, has never heard. This is a small gripe, but ties in to the larger issue these characters rely too heavily on stock characteristics rather than accurate portrayals.

BlacKkKlansman however, is a far stronger depiction of race/racism in America. Directed by Spike Lee, famous for his films that focus on black issues, the film tells the true story of a black man who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. Overall, the film feels far timelier and more relevant than Green Book. The many allusions to President Trump and the footage of the Charlottesville Riots at the end of the film, which mirror the racist imagery prevalent within the film provides a sense of importance and urgency for this kind of art. Unlike Green Book, the film tackles issues of race from the point of view of the oppressed and creates three-dimensional well-rounded characters as opposed to stock archetypes.

I believe BlacKkKlansman is a wholly better film than Green Book in its performances, its direction and it’s writing. However, perhaps most importantly, it is superior to Green Book in its exploration of race. Green Book, despite being released in 2018 feels dated. The film serves as a shallow attempt at exploring themes to make the white audience feel better about themselves while offering no new ideas or a deeper understanding. The Academy awarding Green Book with ‘Best Picture’ highlights a deeper issue that The Academy, and Hollywood at large, has become out of touch and is long overdue for a drastic change. 

“The Academy awarding Green Book with ‘Best Picture’ highlights a deeper issue that The Academy, and Hollywood at large, has become out of touch and is long overdue for a drastic change.”