Thank God That’s Over: The 2019 Academy Awards

I watched a little of the television coverage of the 2019 Academy Awards and  briefly scanned the online updates from sources such as Variety and Indiewire., The was one bright moment in Olivia Coleman’s acceptance speech and the US audience ratings appeared to reverse last year’s slump, but it wasn’t essential viewing. It hasn’t been so for the past decade or more.

Everyone is a critic in respect of valuing award nominees, cheering or jeering each selection, but the Academy Awards  seem to follow a very familiar trajectory, despite attempts to widen its voting membership, which is dominated by older (60+), white males. There is a pattern one can discern in their choices: films which are all about overcoming adversity (physical inhibitions, circumstances of birth, educational disadvantage], usually framed within the contexts of family, or an unlikely friendship.

You can see such themes in this year’s winning film The Green Book ; a film about two mix-matched men on a journey (in the classic mode of The Odd Couple), who come to an understanding of each other. Issues of race and sexuality are secondary to the relationship—or as one online commentator less politely declared, ‘Dumb white person learns about life’s many blessings from a sage soulful sassy black person”, with echoes of Driving  Miss Daisy  or any film starring Morgan Freeman.

The Green Book is a well-constructed film, with a director who is better known for directing Dumb and Dumber.  But it is not a stellar film; one which will remain in the public consciousness for a long time.  The film which should have been awarded the top award is Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma.

We can be hasty in our judgements of films. One anonymous Academy voter, for example, dismissed Roma as a ‘very expensive home movie’. There is a smidgeon of truth in this claim, for Cuaron has explained that he ‘wanted to explore some family wounds’ in his film.  It is certainly about family; the disintegration and reconstruction of family, in particular.  But,  more importantly,  it is about social hierarchies, domestic relationships, the private and the political, race,  and forgiveness.

It is a film which demands attention—not because it is black-and-white and requires reading subtitling of its primary languages  of Spanish and Mixteco.  It is also about film language, which each frame rich in detail and visual beauty. It is a far superior film to The Green Book but popular taste will probably prevail, along with constraints of its distribution.

So, it won Best Director and Best Foreign Film.  It is ‘foreign’ in that it is not in English (or, more correctly, American English), it is in a format which spells ‘old film’ for the unsuspecting, and it is set some fifty years ago.  Nevertheless, it deals with universal themes of deep meaning. Do get see if you can.

If you agree with my reservations about The Green Book, seek out the recent documentary The Green Book: Guide to Freedom (dir. Yoruba Richen, 2019, A Smithsonian Production),  which tells the fuller story about race relations in the USA.

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Geoff Lealand

Geoff Lealand taught screen studies at the University of Waikato for 25 years, and co authored ( with Helen Martin) the  book, It’s All Done  With Mirrors, About Television.  He  is a writer,  and active conservationist and  maintains his website Cinemas of New Zealand cinemasofnz.info.