Green Book’s triumph at the 91st annual Academy Awards — winning Best Picture over popular nominees such as Black Panther and Roma – has revived a debate over whether the Academy Awards are relevant anymore. How could a Best Picture Oscar go to a widely scorned movie about race relations directed by the same guy responsible for Dumb and Dumber?
I think the Academy Awards are more relevant than ever but not as a barometer of popular taste. Rather, the Oscars symbolize a battle between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood. And during the Oscars telecast, both sides scored victories.
Old Hollywood is largely composed of white men who make crowd-pleasing movies distributed through traditional movie theaters. At the Oscars, Old Hollywood was symbolized by Jim Burke, Brian Hayes Currie, Nick Vallelonga, and Charles B. Wessler, who produced Green Book; and Peter Farrelly, who produced, directed, and co-wrote Green Book.
New Hollywood is a more diverse group that includes people of color who are willing to make personal movies about people of color. New Hollywood is also open to distributing movies outside the traditional theater system. New Hollywood’s most prominent ambassador at the Oscars was Alfonso Cuarón, whose Roma was distributed by Netflix (largely through in-home streaming) and nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture.
For most of the ceremony, New Hollywood had the upper hand. To wit:
- Seven black artists won Oscars, the most in Academy Awards history. For example, Ruth Carter won the Costume Design category for her work on Black Panther. She is one of only two black costume designers to be nominated since the Academy Awards created the category in 1949. Hannah Beachler became the first black designer to receive a nomination and a win in the Production Design category (for Black Panther).
- Roma won Oscars for Foreign Language Film, Directing, and Cinematography (Cuarón became the first person to win Oscars for both Directing and Cinematography). These were major coups for Netflix, as the streaming service challenges conventional notions of how movies are distributed. Netflix would win four Oscars before the night was over.
- BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther, and Spider-Man: into the Spider-Verse (which featured a biracial Spider-Man), took home five awards between them, including the first-ever competitive Oscar for BlacKkKlansman director and cowriter Spike Lee.
Sure, New Hollywood could quibble over Green Book winning a Original Screenplay. But until Best Picture was announced, the evening looked like a victory for the vanguards of a more diverse and daring group of filmmakers.
Until Green Book spoiled the party.
The shock of Green Book winning reverberated immediately on social media, even as the group of overwhelmingly white producers and cast stood onstage and accepted the award. And as if on cue, critics lashed out savagely, with Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times calling the movie “the worst best picture winner since Crash.’” Green Book was, and continues to be, criticized as a cringeworthy attempt by a largely white power structure to sugarcoat race relations. The movie has also been accused of perpetuating the myth of “the magical Negro” and “the white savior.” And the movie’s troubled production history certainly has not won any fans.
But as with any narrative, the story of the regressive Green Book triumphing over progressive New Hollywood is not as clean as it looks. For one thing, Mahershala Ali, who is as symbolic of the exciting talent emerging from New Hollywood as anyone, won Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of Don Shirley in Green Book. He had previously won an Oscar for Moonlight, becoming the first Muslim to win an Oscar. And the Best Picture win also meant a shared Oscar for Green Book executive producer Octavia Spencer, another vibrant symbol of New Hollywood whose next production, Ma, launches May 31.
In fact, Green Book represents both a death rattle of Old Hollywood and a passing of the reins of power to New Hollywood through the involvement of Octavia Spencer and Mahershala Ali. In addition, the success of Green Book, distributed by an Old Hollywood studio, Universal Pictures, may tempt filmmakers to work with an alternative New Hollywood distributor such as Netflix or Amazon Studios if they want to make intensely personal movies that reflect diverse voices and cultures. As Alfonso Cuarón recently said of Roma,
“My question to you is, how many theaters did you think that a Mexican film in black and white, in Spanish and Mixteco, that is a drama without stars — how big did you think it would be as a conventional theatrical release? I just hope the discussion between Netflix and platforms in general should be over. I think those guys, platforms and theatrical, should go together . . . They both together can elevate cinema, and more important, they can create a diversity in cinema.”
Netflix now has an opportunity to burnish its image as the home for New Hollywood movie makers who don’t want to make the next Green Book. In addition, Netflix can attract Old Hollywood filmmakers who want to make risky films that Old Hollywood won’t touch, an example being Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming movie, The Irishman, being distributed by Netflix. As Scorsese said at the Marrakech International Film Festival:
“People such as Netflix are taking risks. ‘The Irishman’ is a risky film. No one else wanted to fund the pic for five to seven years. And of course we’re all getting older. Netflix took the risk.”
Netflix is not alone. Both Amazon and Hulu also had Oscar movies nominated for (lesser) Oscars at the 91st Academy Awards. But Netflix is the front runner. Although Roma did not win a Best Picture, Netflix did make history at the Oscars. As Tom Rogers, the former chief executive of the digital video recorder company TiVo, told NBC, “It doesn’t really matter that ‘Roma’ didn’t win best picture. Netflix has unleashed the power of a new business model that will be with us for a long time.”
How long before Old Hollywood buckles under? We’ll find out at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020.