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The Oscars’ erasure of racism in America

As the Academy Award for Best Picture was announced on Sunday night, Spike Lee sprang up from his seat, stormed to the doors at the back of the Dolby Theatre, and attempted to leave in frustration and anger. “Green Book” had won Best Picture. Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” was also nominated for the night’s highest award, and the director may have been angry over the fact that his film lost to Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book.” But Lee’s film had already taken home an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, so his frustration over “Green Book” receiving the night’s top award might have run deeper than petty competition. 

Lee’s response and the “Green Book” victory over “BlacKkKlansman” and the other films in the category offer a harrowing snapshot of our nation’s constant and ever-present approach towards race, justice, and social equality. The films offer two vastly different narratives surrounding race in America, and their contrasting messages put forth two diverging paths for our modern America.

These approaches and the ways we must confront our past can be especially resonant for students at Princeton and other similar institutions with histories of oppression whose structural legacies persist still today. We, as members of such institutions, must make decisions as to how we understand, reflect, and remedy institutional inequality and injustice. Our own experiences with the evils of the past in such aspects as the legacy of Woodrow Wilson and the intertwining of slavery with Princeton’s founding demonstrate the ever-present nature of how we seek justice amidst sin.

“Green Book” tells the story of Don Shirley, a black classical and jazz pianist who decides to take a tour of the southern United States, and Tony Vallelonga, an Italian-American man who works as Shirley’s driver and bodyguard for the duration of the trip in 1962. “BlacKkKlansman” tells the real-life story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer in 1970s Colorado Springs who infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and reveals the extent of their violence and plans of domestic terrorism.

These two movies both ostensibly deal with the issue of race in America, look to our past as a nation, and have strong thematic messages running through their narratives. But the two films are anything but similar. “Green Book” epitomizes the delusional, empty shortcomings of our nation’s approach to racism and injustice, and its victory over other films — most notably “BlacKkKlansman” — indicates the growing popularity of hollow ideas on how to move forward as a nation in these troubling times. I, along with many others, share the reactions and sentiments of Spike Lee at the thought that “Green Book” represents the supposed best of films from 2018.

“Green Book” ultimately promotes a middle-of-the-road and overly clichéd message of unity and togetherness as the way to bridge our differences. While it indulges the positive imagery and message of our shared humanity — and its filmmakers have not ceased to declare this intent at every opportunity during awards shows and media appearances — “Green Book” offers nothing new, nothing original, and nothing meaningful to this end. Its central message, that racism is wrong and that communication and cooperation can bridge divides, is painfully and dangerously unoriginal for our modern America.

The film relies on overdone tropes, empty messages, white saviorism, and racial clichés to create a veneer of racial unity and social justice. It does this in the hopes of establishing a story of how prejudice can be overcome when we all come together. But “Green Book” and its ensuing message are emblematic of empty progress.

The critical and popular opposition to “Green Book” is not restricted to its on-screen content. This critique leaves out copious issues with the production and writing of “Green Book” off camera. Nick Vallelonga — the writer of “Green Book” and the son of the real-life character Tony Vallelonga — himself supported and retweeted the claims of Donald Trump that Muslims and Arabs were cheering in New Jersey at the news that the Twin Towers had fallen on September 11, 2001. At a press interview for the film, Viggo Mortensen used the n-word to describe how much racial progress has occurred in America. The film’s other leading actor, Mahershala Ali, apologized to the family of Don Shirley for, among other things, the historical inaccuracy of the film’s central holding. Namely, Don Shirley never considered Tony Vallelonga a close friend, as the movie boldly and loudly celebrates by the film’s close. The film continues this line of historical inaccuracy by incorrectly claiming Shirley felt estranged by his race and ashamed of his black identity. All of this was revealed by Shirley’s own family, who professed that the film was a “symphony of lies.”

Spike Lee’s masterpiece “BlacKkKlansman” addresses the same histories of race and realities of injustice and continued oppression, but it empowers and inspires its audience through an authentic grappling with those realities of racism and with complex dialogues on how we as individuals can best combat the structures of oppression around us. Lee’s film celebrates the passion, emotion, and genius of black agency while providing meaningful and harrowing conversations on the navigation of institutional structures and interracial relationship. “BlacKkKlansman” does not rely on tropes or flowery racial messages. Instead, Lee’s work engages the audience to reckon with the appalling reality of America’s evil of racism towards some conception of achieving lasting justice and meaningful change.

 In “BlacKkKlansman,” history is not written over, and racism is not reduced to something that can be solved by driving in a car together. Racism exists in Lee’s movie, and it exists unabashedly and pervasively. Evil, bigotry, and division run rampant without anything to cover their blemish.

But Lee’s film inspires us to consider means of achieving justice, equality, and solidarity under oppression. It promises no easy solution, but it forces the audience to wrestle with society’s evils. As a nation, we must understand that lasting change founded on equality and justice demands more than words or empty actions. Coming together entails an honest and reflective look to our past and an authentic and sometimes painful conversation about our future. At times, progress and change are uncomfortable. They do not always lead to a happy ending in the short term, but an investment in the ideas of justice means a willingness to bear the burden of reckoning with our evils in order to assure the persistence of a future founded on equality. “Green Book” cheapens this ideal by telling a story in which a cliché, empty rhetoric of unity and togetherness denies an authentic step forward in the American consciousness.

Spike Lee’s sentiments on Sunday night are a harrowing parallel to Hollywood’s biggest night thirty years ago. In 1990, “Driving Miss Daisy” won the award for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Lee’s masterpiece “Do the Right Thing” came out that same year, but in one of the Academy’s worst decisions, the film received no nomination in the category. Many have labeled “Green Book” as this season’s “Driving Miss Daisy” as both films indulge happy endings rather than having honest, authentic, and complicated conversations that deal with race and our nation’s next steps forward. In 1990, before introducing another Best Picture nominee “Dead Poets Society,” actress Kim Basinger went off script and celebrated Spike Lee’s unsung film. “But there is one film missing from this list that deserves to be on it because ironically, it might tell the biggest truth of all. And that’s ‘Do the Right Thing.’”

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After the award for Best Picture was announced at the 91st Academy Awards, Spike Lee announced at a press conference, “I’m snakebit. Every time somebody is driving somebody, I lose — but they changed the seating arrangement!” Lee’s words tell a sad story of just how little has truly changed in three decades in Hollywood. The seats may have changed, but what about the ideas at the core of the films we choose to honor so gloriously?

Kaveh Badrei is a junior Wilson School concentrator from Houston, Tex. He can be reached at