Hey, did you hear that the Oscars were on Sunday? There were awesome frocks and steamy performances and no host and arguably the (second) least deserving movie– Green Book— won Best Picture. A lot of people are really pissed about it.
Now, I haven’t seen Green Book. I only saw a couple of the nominees, since I work nights and get out to the cinemas about once every five months. I also call it “the cinemas.”
ONE OF THE LAMER TIME-HONORED TRADITIONS OF AMERICAN CINEMA
I do know the film’s premise; where Viggo Mortensen plays a racist white guy who drives around a black piano virtuoso played by Mahershala Ali and slowly learns to be not racist via friendship forged via roadtripping. Or something like that. There’s a long tradition of these sorts of films, where the white character’s growth (and by extension, the black character’s patient accommodation of their failures) is centered above the (far more interesting) black character’s story. You can usually count on a good dose of white savior complex and respectability politics as well.
By most accounts from folks I trust, Green Book is an okay movie to you know, exist. It’s cliched and problematic and saccharine, but so are a lot of films. The lead performances are better than the premise deserves, and the direction is better than you’d think for a drama directed by guy who made Dumb and Dumber. But in a year that had not only Black Panther and Blackkklansman, but Roma and The Favourite, to give best picture to THIS film? Sure, Vice and Bohemian Rhapsody reportedly sucked, but giving either of them the award would feel less like social-issue-bets-hedging by the academy.
“Hey we want to acknowledge the tension around race and the fact that we, as the Academy, have historically been terrible on that front, but only in the safest, most white-guilt absolving way possible.”
THIS IS A STORY I’VE HEARD ALL MY LIFE
The essential premise of Green Book— and other movies of its type– echo the narrative the vast majority of the white church has put forward about race and racism. In the churches I grew up in, racism was largely seen as what was termed “a problem of the heart.”
To varying degrees, racism and prejudice got talked about 1) primarily as a problem that existed in the past and 2) as something one individual does to another. If we all just were better, more understanding and decent people to each other, the problem would go away.
THAT ONLY WORKS IF YOU DO IT, AND IT DOESN’T EVEN WORK THEN
There’s more to it than just “being nice;” in the context of the church, as overcoming prejudice is part of the deep personal transformation that comes from a Relationship with Jesus. In the best of said churches, this does involve lots of self-examination and work, as well as lots of prayer and religious rituals that can be very powerful for those who believe.
And yes: people being decent to each other and making sincere attempts to overcome their prejudices is a good thing. It is better when people are nice to each other than when they are mean. It’s a low bar, though.
THE CHURCH’S SELECTIVE APPROACH TO GOVERNMENT ACTION
But this individual narrative is limited in scope; it does nothing to address histories of redlining, of lost generational wealth, of fewer opportunities for higher education, good jobs, bank loans, cultural representation and more. And interestingly enough, while the church tends to view racism as a sin of the individual– much like alcoholism or fornication or murder or shoplifting– many white churches virulently oppose programs like affirmative action and gripe about any sorts of “sensitivity trainings” but are happy to lobby state legislators to pass stricter laws around alcohol, institute abstinence only education or keep the death penalty active.
This is part of the reason why a huge portion of the Christian, and especially Evangelical community could wholeheartedly believe that they are not racist, and vote for Donald Trump– or really most other Republicans. For them racism only exists as a one-on-one offense; if everyone was just nicer, it’d be fine.
That’s a remarkably short-sighted take for those preaching a religion that has the underlying understanding that everyone fucks up all the time and requires the Grace of God. One of the strengths of Christianity applied isthe ability to grow and change in the face of your own failures– but it should also stand to reason that society should take the flawedness of human nature into account on a structural level.
If you can recognize that the proximity of a liquor store to a high school might help spur underage drinking, you should be able to recognize that laws preventing overt discrimination could be necessary.
BUT ANYWAY BACK TO THE CINEMAS. . .
Green Book represents this sort short-sightedness of thinking in film form. It’s also set in the past, another way it lets white people off the hook. It’s a “look how far we’ve come” approach that lulls into inaction rather spurs into action. Just like so many of the “let’s just all love each other” sermons I’ve sat through in my life.
If watching this film (or any of its genre) or hearing said sermons gets someone to self-examine, and approach their own attitudes with more care, great! That’s a nice first step. It’s just that so often, these approaches serve to facilitate just the opposite.
At any rate, on a filmmaking level it doesn’t matter; everyone knows Sorry To Bother You was the best movie of the year and it didn’t even get nominated.
Also published on Medium.