Public Media Arts Hub

Why these 2 film critics think 'Green Book' complaints are 'overloaded'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: It was a night to celebrate the best of film. And it came at a moment when Hollywood is evaluating how to promote diversity.

The 91st Academy Awards showcased the triumphs, but wasn't without controversy.

In recent weeks, we sat down with a number of the nominees.

Amna Nawaz is here to take a look at the ceremony, part of Canvas, our regular arts and culture series.

Woman: And the Oscar goes to Regina King!


Amna Nawaz: A hostless night at the Oscars with winners that spanned race, gender and cultures. The four main acting awards went to Mahershala Ali for "Green Book."

Rami Malek: Oh, my God.

Amna Nawaz: Rami Malek for his portrayal of Queen's lead singer, Freddie Mercury, in "Bohemian Rhapsody," and Regina King for "If Beale Street Could Talk," based on James Baldwin's novel of a love story nearly destroyed by racism and hate in 1970s New York.

Regina King: Love is what brought you here. And if you have trusted love this far, don't panic now.

Amna Nawaz: King spoke with the "NewsHour" about the film earlier this month.

Regina King: It is, as a black American, just a reminder of how resilient, you know, we are, when you look at our history, and that love is a universal thing, love pushing through trauma.

Amna Nawaz: Olivia Colman took home her first Oscar for best actress in "The Favourite."

And Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler became the first African-American women to win best costume and production design respectively for "Black Panther."

Carter spoke to the "NewsHour" about wanting to showcase the diversity of black culture, blended with futuristic themes.

Ruth E. Carter: This was an opportunity to take, you know, the Afro-future or the aesthetics of African diaspora and infuse it into this culture and bring it to life in that way

Amna Nawaz: And winning his first Academy Award, director Spike Lee, the best adapted screenplay Oscar for "BlacKkKlansman," in which a black detective goes undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s.

The ceremony also reached across cultures.

Trevor Noah: He would remind me of a great Xhosa phrase.

Amna Nawaz: Comedian Trevor Noah, who's from South Africa, played an inside joke in his native tongue of Xhosa, pretending to say one thing, but actually saying, "White people don't know I'm lying."

And Spanish speakers celebrated their recognition, too.

Alfonso Cuaron: Muchas gracias, Mexico.

Amna Nawaz: Alfonso Cuaron won best director, cinematography and foreign film for "Roma," a semi-autobiographical depiction of his childhood in 1970s Mexico.

While viewers saw wider representation within the winners and the films themselves, the Academy didn't go without criticism, namely for the best picture winner, "Green Book." Spike Lee and others slammed the award, calling the film stereotypical story of a white person saving a black person from peril.

We turn now to two of our frequent guides to the movies. Mike Sargent is chief film critic of WBAI Radio in New York and co-president of the Black Film Critics Circle. And Ann Hornaday is chief film critic for The Washington Post.

Welcome back to you both.

And let's start with the "Green Book," which is where our piece left off.

A couple of the headlines coming out of last night's ceremony. This proves Hollywood is still a sucker for white saviors. Another headline, why do the Oscars keep falling for racial reconciliation fantasies?

There's an argument to be made that maybe "Green Book" wasn't maybe the best picture best pick. What do you think of that conversation?

Ann Hornaday: Well, I think it's a little overloaded.

Honestly, I don't think the movie -- it's a modest movie. It's a buddy comedy about two men traveling in the Jim Crow South. So, obviously, it is about racism and racial reconciliation. But I don't think it ever set out to be the answer to those things or to cure racism, or to -- I think a lot of vitriol is sort of centered around it that it may be never really deserved.

It's a small movie with modest aspirations, very much elevated by its two central performances from Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. It's a family comedy. Let's remember it's a Page-13 movie that you can take your entire family to. So I think it's really important to always keep -- bear in mind what a movie is trying to achieve and judge it on those merits, rather than what we're bringing to it.

Amna Nawaz: Mike, what do you make of the criticism? A lot of it has to do with the idea that they say some of the facts or bent to fit a good narrative here. That's not anything new in Hollywood, though. Is the criticism fair, you think?

Mike Sargent: Well, I think you have to look at it from two perspectives.

I think, you know, I'm a black film critic, and I know I'm in the minority. I love the film. But I don't know a black counterpart, another black critic who did. They all hate it. And they hate it for all the tropes, the white savior, the magical Negro, all of that. And I understand it, and they're all valid points.

But I think the problem here is not that it's not historically accurate, but this is not the Don Shirley story. Sure, Don Shirley is a much more interesting character than Nick Vallelonga, but it's not about that. It's about when these two men meet and the relationship they had and the effect they had on each other.

This is not a film for black folks. This is a film for white folks. And it's a film that the criticism has been that it spoon-feeds racism. And you know what? You do have to spoon-feed racism to people who don't see it or who don't necessarily acknowledge it.

Ann Hornaday: But I will say -- I want to add that I have spoken -- the audience that I saw with was a mixed audience, and everyone in that room was enjoying it.

Mike Sargent: Oh, I saw it with friends. And they loved it.

Ann Hornaday: And I -- more than one African-American viewer has responded incredibly positively toward this film.

And even especially older people who do remember that time have said, even though it's idealized and sentimentalized, that it does -- it has something to contribute to our understanding of that history, especially when you think about bringing young people in and just getting them started on this road to understanding.

Mike Sargent: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Amna Nawaz: Well, let me ask you about this, too, because a lot of the headlines coming out of last night had to do with the celebration of diversity, right?

There were a number of firsts that took place on the stage, a number of people we don't usually see walk across the Oscar stage. This is a point you and I were talking about earlier too.

One of the diversity angles that hasn't gotten a lot of attention -- and, Ann, I will start with you on this -- was the fact that the movie everyone was talking about, Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma," centers a story of an indigenous Mexican woman, a domestic worker.

These aren't the kind of stories that we typically see win Oscars. What did you make of that?

Ann Hornaday: Very good point.

That was probably my biggest takeaway, was just how organic it felt to have so many different people from different countries. It was a very global Oscars this year. And I think that is a direct effect of these new members that have been coming into the Academy over the past few years.

We have focused on race and gender, but I think that the net effect is really global. It's become a much more international organization and cosmopolitan. And I think they're just -- they're just pulling their lens back in a really great way to just find film and cinematic stories everywhere, and from a whole bunch of people.

I mean, just seeing Hannah Beachler up there and Ruth E. Carter and all of these visions and voices, they were not there because of what they are. They're there because of what they made and the specific talents and visions they brought to that work.

And that's what -- I hope that's what we're all going for.

Amna Nawaz: On that global angle, Mike, I want to ask you about this, that -- the fact that Alfonso Cuaron won last night means that five of the last six best director Oscars have been won by Mexican filmmakers, which is sort of extraordinary, in and of itself.

At the same time, you look at some representation here in Hollywood, and I want to pull up some numbers here. UCLA does an annual report looking at Hollywood diversity. These are based on 2017 films in their latest 2019 report.

But you look at who is actually represented in all film roles, only 5 percent of all film roles were for Latino characters. That is -- they are vastly underrepresented when it comes to the people on the screen.

How do you reconcile those two stories?

Mike Sargent: You reconcile it by nominating "Roma." You reconcile it by nominating it in multiple categories. And you reconcile it by the few directors that are there giving them a lot of accolades and acknowledging that they do great work.

I mean, that's the only way to reconcile it. But it's true. I mean, that's only going to change -- the Academy reflects Hollywood in general. It was, they said, an old boys club, a mostly older white male club. Well, that's who's running Hollywood.

It's only beginning to change. And that's why we're seeing the kind of nominations we're seeing. If you look at the amount of people in the best picture who were people of color who directed these films, that's first.

Ruth Carter, that's a first. The director of "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," that's a first. Mahershala Ali winning two Oscars, only one other actor has ever done that. And that was Denzel.

So there are so many things that are changing. You have to look at -- it's glass half-empty or glass half-full.

Amna Nawaz: Yes, all right, then. We will see what the future awards will hold.

Mike Sargent and Ann Hornaday, always good to talk to you guys.

Ann Hornaday: Thank you.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.