Yolanda Machado, a Latinx film critic, was at an event honoring Roma when she first realized the hold that the film Green Book had on Academy voters. More than admiring the film’s craft, it struck them in the gut. It just made them feel good.
“They said it was a beautiful, feel-good film that was needed in these divisive times,” Machado says in a phone interview with Out. Machado says when she raised any of the film’s controversies — director Peter Farrelly’s #MeToo accusations, writer Nick Vallelonga’s anti-Muslim tweets, or the fact that it misrepresented its subject, Dr. Donald Shirley — no one had heard about the controversies. These kinds of things, Machado says, caused uproar on social media, a landscape many of these voters — the average age of which was 63 in 2013 — simply don’t inhabit.
Green Book tells the story of Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) a classical pianist, and Black queer man, in need of a guide through the U.S. South for his concert tour. Enter Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who drives him around the country. The two develop a friendship that helps Vallelonga overcome his racism and Shirley deal with his own feelings of alienation from both Black people for being gay and white people for being Black. Yes, there’s a scene where Vallelonga and Shirley eat fried chicken and yes, it’s been criticized as a white savior narrative.
To Machado, the sycophantic embrace of the film was almost Trumpian. People didn’t care about the film’s inaccuracies; they just knew the film hit them in the feels. Its message about racial unity struck a chord so loud, no facts could be heard over it.
The best picture race is often not just a race between pieces of art, but ideologies. The films chosen to compete in the race represent viewpoints about the world and the winner often seen as the Academy’s prevailing sentiment, even if the message is less intentional and more coincidental. Both 2016’s Moonlight and 2017’s The Shape of Water were widely seen as rebukes of Trumpism, pleas to stand up for queer people, people of color, and disabled people and calls to engage with those who are marginalized rather than continue to ignore them.
Erik Anderson, the founder and owner of AwardsWatch, has spent much of his professional time since Green Book’s surprise Golden Globes win for best screenplay and best musical or comedy motion picture discerning what a Green Book win at the Oscars might say about the United States right now.
“The Oscars are often a huge pendulum swing,” Anderson tells Out. “Moonlight and The Shape of Water happen as a comment on the Trump administration and the rise of nationalism. But that pendulum swings and comes with what we’re seeing this year. I think what we’re seeing with Green Book is a backlash to the backlash.”
Emotions play a huge part of that backlash-to-the-backlash, Anderson says. No one likes to see their favorite attacked and rather than have the positive feeling about a film wrested from them, some might react by doubling down support. But Anderson isn’t only concerned with how Green Book became the year’s darling to a certain sect of voters, he has questions as to why Green Book, which he called “potentially dangerous,” has become the year’s feel-good film.
“Movies that soft pedal important issues run the risk of diffusing how important those issues are,” Anderson says. “When you make them too palatable and paint them with too broad of a stroke, it doesn’t do any good at all.”
He continues, “I think it’s representative of the ‘good people on both sides’ argument. What a movie like that does is make people feel good because people are making good decisions.”
“It’s all very safe,” he says.
Kyle Buchanan, pop culture reporter and the awards season Carpetbagger at the New York Times, says that in speaking to many voters, it’s clear that Green Book is much beloved, especially because of its message.
“Green Book is a story about racial reconciliation, that’s a narrative that really resonates with a lot of people,” Buchanan tells Out. Green Book may be a palatable film about race, but Buchanan adds that while its detractors may find it simplistic, its fans probably do feel challenged by it, “but they also respond to the fact that it has a happy ending, an ending that shows people coming together.”
“I think this year people are very skeptical about unity,” he says. “I think that’s an ending that those viewers prefer rather than an ending that unsettles.”
Moonlight, like Green Book, concerns the life of a queer Black man. But Moonlight was not comfortable. It examined structural issues and though it hinted at recovery, it was only a hint. Green Book offers readers a resolution, however contrived. In Green Book, the panacea for racism is Christmas dinner and fried chicken.
There’s no doubt that if Green Book walks away with the trophy for best picture on Sunday, that it will elicit a deep emotional response from its fans and detractors. In a year of several award-worthy Black stories told by Black directors – Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, and If Beale Street Could Talk, to name a few — the lion’s share of awards attention has gone to Green Book, a film about a Black queer man that sidelines Shirley in favor of Vallelonga, the father of the person who wrote the script. (Shirley’s family called the film a “symphony of lies,” prompting Ali to apologize for the film’s oversight of Shirley’s living loved ones.)
Even these reactions, though, show the vast chasm in experience between those who vote for awards and those who discuss them online. While many in the US political discourse talk about “bubbles” and “siloes” to describe the American electorate, both Anderson and Buchanan alluded to similar terminology to describe the disconnect between how movies are talked about online versus offline.
“We almost have fandoms at war, which I don’t think is necessarily how Oscar voters think about it,” Buchanan says. “The discourse can grow so exponentially online in a way that it simply does not in real life for people who are not plugged into it.”
Academy voters Buchanan speaks to have an uncomplicated response to films like Green Book, which is, “I love this movie and I am voting for it.” As Machado said, few voters care about the controversies. They don’t want their favorite film’s detractors to kill their vibe.