oscars 2019

How Green Book Won Best Picture

Green Book. Photo: Universal Pictures

Who was Green Book for? As it turns out, Oscar voters. At the 91st Academy Awards, Peter Farrelly’s film pulled off a surprise Best Picture win, to go alongside trophies in Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay. In a wide-open Best Picture race, Green Book was one of the top contenders all season long: The film burst onto the awards scene after winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, and sustained its momentum by triumphing at the Producers Guild of America Awards in January. Still, the win is likely to become one of the most controversial picks in recent memory, as Green Book had become one of this year’s official Oscars villains thanks to its even-handed approach to racism and the liberties it took with its depiction of musician Don Shirley. On Twitter, the movie’s big night has been met with shock and disgustWhat were they thinking? Here’s an attempt to get inside the minds of the voters who named Green Book, a film in which Viggo Mortensen teaches Mahershala Ali how to eat fried chicken, the best movie of the year.

1. It allowed voters to lean into a soothing vision of interracial harmony.

If you told Green Book fans the movie was an old-fashioned relic that presented a comforting gloss on thorny social issues, they’d almost certainly agree with you. To many voters, Hollywood films are supposed to address intractable problems in a way that makes you walk out feeling good. This isn’t a dialectic that started with La La Land and Moonlight — Louis B. Mayer and John Huston were having similar arguments about realism versus escapism as far back as 1951, with the always-tasteful Mayer comparing the incoming wave of kitchen-sink naturalism to a woman going to the bathroom without closing the door: It was realistic, sure, but who’d want to see it? The past three years in Hollywood have been extremely fraught, and with big wins for Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, voters in these trying times seem to be gravitating toward films that keep the bathroom door resolutely closed.

2. It still felt progressive to older voters.

While the legions of new voters may have had their votes split between Black Panther, Roma, and The Favourite, the older voters I met were nearly unanimous in gushing over Green Book. Online, how progressive Green Book was has been up for debate (it certainly has a rosier view of white cops in the Jim Crow–era than Shape of Water did), but those debates didn’t seem to sway the Academy members I spoke to, who responded to the film’s straightforward message of tolerance. In the third Oscars season of the Trump era, Green Book voters felt like they were taking a stand against bigotry by supporting the film, and no amount of think pieces were able to convince them otherwise. (In that sense, of all the issues that arose during Green Book’s campaign, the Nick Vallelonga tweet was the most damaging, which could explain why Vallelonga was generally kept out of the public eye in the season’s final weeks.) The Producers Guild uses the same kind of preferential ballot as Best Picture, and Green Book’s win there was an omen that all the controversy did not make the movie too hot to touch.

2a. But maybe not too progressive.

This is speculation on my part, but I wonder if the film’s let’s-just-slow-down-and-listen-to-each-other message resonated with moderate-liberal voters in a season where the Covington Catholic drama and the Jussie Smollett scandal took up so much oxygen. Before either of those popped off, I did hear from an older voter who seemed to have taken the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the ensuing membership expansion slightly personally — they wondered if the Academy had “made up” for it with Moonlight’s win, and would soon go back to voting for what they liked, no matter what anyone said. Judging from the reaction to Green Book’s win, that turned out to be quite prescient. At the very least, there were certainly plenty of voters who felt protective of the movie, and did not appreciate what they saw as efforts to take it down.

3. It ran a solid campaign.

Team Green Book didn’t spend the most money — everyone seems to agree that Roma and Star Is Born cost the most — but they were some of the most active and successful campaigners of the season. While Farrelly didn’t score a director nomination, voters I spoke to found him a warm and sincere pitchman for the film as a whole, which helped him skate past an indecent exposure scandal that might have sunk a pricklier filmmaker. Bradley Cooper could tell you that Oscar voters don’t always love a newcomer, but Farrelly’s humor and self-deprecation seemed to disarm any notion of him as an Oscars arriviste. And once the bad headlines started to pile up, Mahershala Ali turned in another perfectly modulated performance on the trail, never defending the indefensible, but also never abandoning the film either. He spoke of Green Book as the rare project that offered him the chance to play a lead, its own kind of victory in terms of representation.

And though the Green Book camp rarely managed to find time to thank Dr. Shirley and his family during their time at the podium, they were still savvy enough to get co-signs from black icons like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, and Representative John Lewis, who introduced the film’s clip package at the Oscars alongside Amandla Stenberg. I’ve seen a few tweets from white writers implying that people like Lewis were somehow “forced” to speak up for Green Book, but that feels like an easy way out of cognitive dissonance to me. It might be more accurate to say that, having lived through the time period the movie depicts, these men had their own perspective on the dangers of going backwards, and the value of a reassuring fairy tale.

How Green Book Won Best Picture