WARNING: THIS IS MY MOST DEBBIE DOWNER-ISH POST OF THEM. HOPEFULLY INSIGHTFUL?
Sunday night, the 91st Academy Awards was under Hollywood's scathing microscope on all fronts. From addressing #OscarsSoWhite to dodging mentions of power players accused of sexual assault, the Oscars needed to play its cards right. For its abundance of controversies this year, it had to salvage for a host (no one liked the gig) and minutes to trim by presenting Best Cinematography, Best Live Action Short Film, Best Film Editing, and Best Makeup and Hairstyling during commercials (which they nearly did). Would The Oscars prevail over the looming scandals to deliver a memorable ceremony? What did we learn from Hollywood's Biggest Night?
The Academy must have been karaoking to "The Best of Queen" as they prepped,, because DAMN THERE WAS A TON OF QUEEN. From the American Idol commercial to Adam Lambert's opener, I was guessing that a reborn Freddie Mercury to fly out of the grave and onstage. Or at least, get some Tupac vibes with a hologram?
The odds seemed to be leaning for the Freddie Mercury biopic as "Bohemian Rhapsody" won Best Lead Actor, Best Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. The movie knew how to stir up conviviality amongst music lovers, inviting us to sing along to "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions."
Yet my gripes are for the way the filmmakers zigged and zagged around the issue of Mercury's sexuality. Mercury startles his band members when he says he has "it." It what? The It Factor? Pennywise It? Information Technology? Nope. AIDS. I am not going to dive into the History of AIDS and Homosexuality in the 1980s; read up on it sometime. But Freddie Mercury as a gay icon is seemingly reduced to promiscuous encounters and "arm brushings" of embracing his sexuality. Freddie the movie character was sanitized by the Hollywood Biopic Washer. Any complexity or nuance was stripped for a generic romantic subplot between Mercury and his ex-girlfriend. And forget about the partner of seven years. Just a footnote for another documentary or something.
Rami Malek's Freddie declares he is "a hysterical queen." A major disservice to the film's focal point and the life he lived.
Queen is Queen because the real Freddie loved his queer identity and fashioned it into the band's DNA. His four octave vocal range will echo and rock in every musicphile's memory. But his life is just as precious. Historical inaccuracies and dysfunctional mischaracterization of its subject are the final nails in the coffin. So I was not the biggest fan of Bohemian Rhapsody. But GOD BLESS RAMI MALEK for his win!
So.... BEST PICTURE. A very divisive category with a multitude of hot takes. The Academy has come under fire for its tone deaf approach on diversity. That is why we have 2015's #OscarsSoWhite, coined by April Reign. Whether the Academy's publicity team were on DEFCON 1 about losing respect by their peers or the commercial money, they tweaked it every year. Since then, the Oscars have baby-crawled their way to inclusion. Tonight is one step forward.
Milestones for Women & POC at The Oscars:
- Mahershala Ali, Rami Malek and Regina King won in their respective acting categories as people of color.
- Alfonso Cuarón took three awards home for Roma.
- Spike Lee got his well-deserved Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Black Kkklansmen.
- Spider Man: Into the Spiderverse, which features a Afro-Latino Webslinger nailed the landing with Best Animated Feature. And that wasn't the only superhero flick at the prestigious event.
- Black Panther won Original Score, Production Design, and Costume Design. Almost getting Best Picture, which is a big feat for Marvel blockbusters everywhere.
- Reiterating the success of Black Panther, Hannah Bleacher was the first African-American woman to win Production Design!
Even Thanos himself couldn't snap those milestones away.
Which is why, the Best Picture Decision was underwhelming.
First off, I liked Green Book. Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen are a dynamic duo, and I wanna be their friends. To summarize, Green Book is a period piece/road trip/buddy comedy/inspired by true events flick that highlights the travels of Tony Vallelonga, an Italian-American chauffeur/bodyguard from the Bronx, and Don Shirley, a well-renown black pianist, who travel the Deep South to play music. And it takes place in 1962, the time of Jim Crow. Oh boy. Do I smell the comedy or not?
Green Book explores how two men of different races, class and sexuality can become friends against the adversity of segregation. Once again, Viggo and Mahershala have undeniable chemistry that makes their journey a light hearted affair with laughs over women, music and KFC. For a feel good movie, Green Book is sweet enough for you to almost forget about the ugly realities of racism in American life. Segregation was not just a narrative roadblock, it was a goddamn marathon of toll booths that left you short changed in every sense of the word. For Dr. Shirley, a closeted black musician, racism was a storm cloud over his head that he had to be mindful of. Just because he had a friend in Tony, it didn't mean the clouds dissipated. By the film's resolution, the men gather together at Christmas dinner and racism is solved.
My beef with Hollywood shoehorning resolutions about race is we lose all nuance in the discussion. When filmmakers offer us simple and clean patches like this, we don't tend to flex our analytical muscles. To the easily persuadable, some moviegoers won't research or challenge themselves to learn more about the actual Green Book or the two heroes it is based on. I am not saying you have to become a full-time academic in African American History or Homosexuality in America. But when there is so much expurgating and dramatization of such subject matter, it loses the chance for self-reflection.
Our country today is pretty divided in how we treat race relations and understand identities (racial, gender, sexual, etc). For example, some Americans think blackface is okay for a Halloween costume. Blackface: which dates back to Jim Crow, the same time period of Green Book: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/02/11/about-a-third-of-americans-say-blackface-in-a-halloween-costume-is-acceptable-at-least-sometimes/
We cannot continue sanitizing the sins of our past, our ghosts and the facts of those we admire. Ignorance and looking the other way is a combustible cocktail in society's regression. Art in its various creative forms should connect with their audiences. Whether it is for laughs or tears, a connection is formed and thus as a filmmaker can deliver a statement.
When we shy away from highlighting Freddie Mercury's sexual identity or simplifying the matter of racism in Green Book, we are "Bird Box Blindfolding" our audiences. It is like saying, "No, no, racism is not a thing anymore because this movie is addressing it as if it happened ages ago and our heroes solved it partially. Don't look behind the curtain."
If we can't reflect on where we were, how can society tackle today's challenges that grew from the problems of "yesteryear?" As Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks declared:
Or "those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it."
The Academy and Hollywood must restructure its foundations about what constitutes good storytelling and open the field to more diverse voices. And sometimes it means recognizing the less glamorous and uglier perspectives. In the era of #MeToo, #TimesUp, #OscarsSoWhite, so many folks are asking to have their voices heard. Everyone has something to say. Provide a larger platform for their hard work and efforts to be recognized.
Sometimes I think The Academy is married to the traditional belief that movies are about escapism, where conflict and human drama can be sorted out nice and neat by one to two hours. But when so much time and resources goes into these Oscars campaigns and venues, we as an industry need to put our money where our mouth is.
The Academy, Hollywood Foreign Press and all these organizations should take it upon themselves to recognize what kind of merit they desire in their selections. Is only about star power or studio backing for financial gain? Does the craftsmanship behind a film constitute for anything? Intention and message?
Sensationalism and escapism is candy that merely sugarcoats our cultural hodgepodge's growing cavity for meaningful dialogue and diverse perspectives. Time to think about our films differently.
Side note: Forget the palm trees. LA needs more Spike Lee Shade HUNDRED.
Written by Chandler Kilgore-Parshall