2019 Oscars: Diverse and Divisive

Women won in record numbers this year! Hurrah for Regina King, Rayka Zehtabchi, Hannah Beachler and RuthE. Carter

From the get-go, the 91st Academy Awards courted controversy by announcing Kevin Hart as this year’s Host. The Academy should’ve done it’s homework. People remember when you’ve said homophobic slurs; especially when posted on Twitter. To make matters worse, the Producers thought to make the show shorter by awarding a few categories featuring less glamorous nominees, i.e., cinematography, editing, make-up and hairstyling, and live-action shorts, off-camera.

After significant uproar from the film community, the Academy President reversed that decision and the Show went on, without a Host.

This year’s program was one of the most diverse–both in Oscar Winners and the rainbow of Presenters. There was Serena Williams, Senator John Lewis, actors and musicians, both young and old. Black Panther was the first Super-Hero film to be nominated for Best Picture, and was awarded Oscars for Best Costume Design (Ruth E. Carter) and Best Production Design (Hannah Beachler). The two women made history as African American women winning awards in non-acting roles. Regina King’s win for Best Supporting Actress for If Beale Street Could Talk and Mahershala Ali, Green Book added to that celebration of diversity.

Billy Porter, star of the TV series Pose, broke gender norms with his tuxedo-inspired ball gown. Melissa McCarthy, Awkwafina, Amy Poehler, and Elsie Fisher walked the red carpet in pantsuits. The cast of Crazy Rich Asians was featured in many red carpet interviews. There were moments of triumph for Egyptian Americans (Rami Malek winning Best Actor), Iranian Americans (Rayka Zehtabchi for Best Documentary Short), a record number of LGBTQ-inspired films nominated, and Mexican Director Alfonso Cuarón applauding “…the Academy for recognizing a film centered around an indigenous woman. One of the 70 million domestic workers in the world without workers’ rights.”

There was some disappointment that Glenn Close didn’t win and silly gossip about Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s music performance and whether it signified an affair.

The show went along at a nice pace with some great acceptance speeches. Then the envelope for Best Picture was opened and Green Book was the Oscar winner! This film that landed one of it’s stars, (Viggo Mortensen, nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga) in hot water for use of the “N” word. Green Book was also boycotted by the family of the real Don Shirley. Was this another film about a White Savior–did it create drama with altercations that never happened so that the white character could come to the rescue? Spike Lee, after his triumphant win for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlackKKlansman, turned his back on the stage and later said, “the ref made a bad call” and “every time someone’s driving someone, I lose” — referring to Driving Miss Daisy.

Did Roma, the Best Picture film favored to win, not garner enough votes because it was produced by Netflix? Was the Old Guard Hollywood voting with it’s pocketbook and trying to protect theaterical screening? Alfonso Cuarón had a great response. “For me the conversation about theatrical is super important… I’m a filmmaker. I believe in the theatrical experience. But there has to be diversity. The multiplex theatrical experience is a very gentrified experience. You have one kind of product with few variations. It’s hard to see art-house films. It’s hard to see foreign films. Most theaters play big Hollywood movies.”

As Cuarón told IndieWire before the Roma premiere at the Venice Film Festival last August, the main reason he went to Netflix in the first place was because no other platform that would globally release a black-and-white, Spanish-language drama featuring a cast of mostly unknown actors.

The 2019 Oscar’s may have escaped the #OscarsSoWhite label this year, but we still have some work to do to change hearts and minds. Diversity and inclusion are important, but the Academy needs to continue to welcome younger voters who’ll embrace the changing dynamic of today’s film culture.

Men. In cars. Bonding. “Green Book” & “The Upside”

Green Book
The Upside

My favorite film at the Denver Film Festival this year was The Biggest Little Farm.  I’m excited for people to see this beautiful documentary when it comes to theaters in April. Oddly enough, it was two films with major stars that tied as my other favorites…and both films haven’t been getting much love from the critics.

Green Book and The Upside both feature actors at the top of their game playing characters that are extreme opposites. Based on true stories, both films have scenes that show the characters finding common ground while driving in cars.  And the similarities keep coming. While writing love letters to a woman, both sets of characters reveal their softer, sentimental sides. Black and white, rich vs poor, educated vs street smarts…even the conversations about music play out similarly. They may be set in different time periods and in different cities but where Bryan Cranston’s character loves opera–Kevin Hart is a fan of Aretha Franklin.  Mahershala Ali’s pianist, Dr Don Shirley teaches Viggo Mortenson’s working class stiff, Tony Lip to appreciate classical music and in turn, the refined Dr Shirley learns to appreciate 70’s soul music.

A remake of the brilliant French film, The Intouchables, The Upside has not received a wide release. On-hold since 2017 due to Miramax and #metoo villian Harvey Weinstein’s involvement—is it throwing the baby out with the bath water to stall this film? I really enjoyed it. There are some wicked funny moments between Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart and there are touching scenes that reveal both character’s grief. Though Nicole Kidman has a small role here…her presence of gentle guidance and respect give the film a sure footing. I loved the refection on how wealth changes ones approach to art (both good and bad) and felt that this version based on the real lives of the ex-con and the quadriplegic has something new to say.

Green Book melted my heart. Critics have been calling it trite or sentimental, even complaining that it’s predictable. I found it charming and frightening in places and yes, some of the scenes we’ve seen before. But aren’t stereotypes, stereotypes, because of an endearing trope that has some basis in truth? A tale of two men, but also of two cultures and the racism and bigotry of the South that resonates with our own troubled present. Viggo Mortenson’s Tony Lip is a charming ruffian with a heart as big as Kansas but little opportunity or skill to express it and limited options for betterment. His role as bodyguard and driver to the refined and reserved Dr Don Shirley changes both of their lives. The juxtaposition between concert hall and juke joint, between Dr Shirley’s ornately-decorated penthouse–beautiful ye cold and empty, and Tony Lip’s loud, happy family home…these moments provide both the blues and the joyful jazz to this film.