CREDIT: Universal Pictures/Participant Media

Of all the Best Picture winners since I’ve been closely following the Oscars (starting with Titanic 21 years ago), none besides Green Book has provoked a more diverse and contradictory set of reactions within myself. There have been better winners, and there have been worse winners, but none have given me more confusing emotions.

Upon my initial viewing of the (mis)adventures of Tony Lip and Don Shirley, I found myself as crowd-pleased as the film’s biggest proponents had promised. But the contingent of critics who considered Green Book antiquated or even regressive made some good points that I felt obligated to reckon with. But I had the nagging sense that they were missing the mark just a bit. It felt worth defending, but in a tricky way I was not quite sure how best to explain. And then I read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s take in The Hollywood Reporter, and it started to click.

One particular point in that piece stood out, in which the former NBA great and astute cultural critic noted that black people “know that after viewing the movie, some white people will be self-congratulatory and dismissive by saying, ‘Well, at least it’s not like that anymore.’ But others will be moved to see how those events in history have shaped our current challenges.” Unsurprisingly enough, a common criticism of Green Book I’ve seen is that it caters to supposedly progressive white people who like to think that stories like this prove that racism has been more or less “solved.” And maybe there are people like that, but those missing the point shouldn’t strip the film of what merits it does have.

Where Green Book most excels is in its portrayal of a burgeoning friendship. This is a story setup that we as a species keep returning to because it has proven to be consistently fruitful. Tony and Don are two very different men who find themselves forced to spend long periods of time together in tight spaces. Even if you take away the racial component, their backgrounds are still miles apart (although, to be sure, the black/white divide does play a part in their other differences). Tony is family-oriented, vulgar, and unignorable, while Don is isolated, cultured, and preeminently even-keeled. Green Book does not in any way solve racism, but it is not trying to be so ambitious as to eradicate or even merely least tackle something so systemic. It is a modest movie: old-fashioned, but not regressive.

Amidst all the awards-season hubbub, I had forgotten what I had truly liked about Green Book, so I revisited my original review, where I was a little surprised to be reminded that what I most connected to was Tony Lip’s insatiable appetite. For my money, the best moments are when he wins a bet by eating a bunch of hot dogs and, of course, when he folds an entire pizza in half to bite into the whole thing. This was clearly a passion project for Tony Lip’s real life son, Nick Vallelonga, one of the screenwriters and producers. And as far as I can tell, his motivation was nothing so high-minded as to fix what ails society, but rather, merely to tell his dad’s story, and spread the joie de vivre inherent in that tale.

But as much as I enjoyed Green Book, it was a dispiriting Best Picture selection. As a film that succeeded at a modest goal, its win was like receiving an award for “best high school athlete” at the Olympics (or maybe the inverse of that). As an old-fashioned throwback, it does not really push cinema forward in any way. Academy voters are left to themselves to decide what criteria constitutes the best movie of the year, so I do not know how many of them are using the “push cinema forward” metric, but I would highly recommend that they use it. But that lack of cinematic innovation is not really why it didn’t deserve to win, and here we come to the other, perhaps more important, metric for determining the Best Picture, which is: which of the nominated films has the best message? According to its campaign, Green Book‘s message was a tribute to the power of coming together despite our differences in these divisive times, which understandably rang hollow to a lot of people. When it came to racial commentary, this was by no means the most astute film of 2018, or even the most astute Best Picture nominee of 2018.

But what if the narrative had been different? What if Green Book‘s team had instead been pushing its message of a man with a boundless appetite and a man with a more restrained appetite learning from each other? If each campaign stop had focused around the hot dogs and the pizza and and the fried chicken, I doubt that its Oscar chances would have been as strong as they were, but its merits would have been advertised more accurately. And thus a more delicious sort of chaos would have reigned. So to all you Oscar campaigners, I say: embrace the crudeness now and forevermore!

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