The Problem With Green Book – How the Way the Academy Votes Leads to Unpopular Choices

In the wake of last week’s Academy Awards, there’s a strong impulse to shrug of the disappointment and look ahead to next year, because obviously not everyone’s picks are going to be the same and many people everywhere understand that the Academy doesn’t always get it right.  But, this year in particular, there seemed to be a much louder outcry than normal in response to the results of the 91st Academy Awards, and it’s one that in many ways exposes the true disconnect between audiences and the industry.  And it’s all in response to a little movie called Green Book (2018).  Immediately upon the announcement from actress Julia Roberts as she opened up the envelope up and read the movies name, there was a visceral negative response across the internet.  I myself was caught up in it, as you’d expect from my feelings on the movie from my Oscar picks last week right here.  The consensus generally came down to Academy having made the worst choice for Best Picture since the movie Crash (2005) won the award over the heavily favored Brokeback Mountain (2005).  Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang had a lengthy rebuke of the Oscars written up in almost lightning speed a mere hour after the ceremony ended, and he thoroughly dismantled the decision with a special emphasis on how the movie represented a much larger trend of the Academy loosing touch with it’s audience.  It almost seemed like a fitting end to such a troubled lead up to the Oscars that the aftermath would spark it’s own level of controversy.  But what the Best Picture win for Green Book illustrated the most about the Oscars is the still unfortunate draw backs that the Academy continues to struggle with in a changing world, and how much of it stems from the archaic and largely antiquated way that the awards are voted upon; particularly for Best Picture.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, founded by MGM Mogul Louis B. Meyer in 1927, has always put itself forward as the supreme authority within the industry when it comes to preserving the works of the past, establishing a level of quality within the market, as well as brokering good relations amongst all branches working across the industry.  As part of the establishment of the Academy, the board of Governors invites members from across the five branches (since expanded to 20) of the industry (Actors, Directors, Producers, Writers, and Technicians, etc.) and helps to mediate among other things labor standards, codes of conduct, and awards of merit.  This last aspect of the Academy’s purpose has evolved into their most primary of functions, being the distribution of an annual Academy Award.  Categories exist upon each branch, which gets to select a winner based solely on their discipline within the industry like Actors voting for actors and Directors voting for directors, and so on.  And then the Academy membership as a whole, which is now 6,000 strong, collectively votes together on the Award for Best Picture; the highest honor given out each year.  Now, with a large deliberative body like the Academy, you would think that a straight forward popular vote is what actually determines the winner for each category; but it’s not that simple.  A popular vote is best used when it’s between two choices, but most categories at the Oscars consists of 5 or more; with Best Picture reaching as many as 10.  What happens is that in many cases, the votes come down to each movie receiving less than 50% of the total vote, with the one in the lead sometimes even reaching as low as just a quarter of total votes, which makes it hard for the Academy to determine if that really makes it the Best Picture when it’s not even the favorite by a majority.  So, in addition to determining the Oscars by popular choice, they have also instituted another factor into their voting system and it’s something that in many ways just causing even more headaches for the Academy.

What the Academy uses to determine the winners of their categories, in particular the Best Picture category, is a weighted system.  In this, they allow Academy voters not only to select their favorite choice for the Award, but also their runner up choice as well on the ballot.  From this, the Academy’s accounting firm of PricwaterhouseCoopers tallies not just the results of the initial first choice vote, but also the one for the second choice.  When the initial vote for the category doesn’t result in a consensus winner that achieves the necessary percentage needed, the second choice factor is weighed in as an extra boost, and when everyone’s second choice ends up being the same, that could potentially earn the movie enough points to push it over the top.  This usually doesn’t become a problem when the races are far less competitive, but in a year like this one, where there was no clear front runner for the race for Best Picture, this weighed voting system starts to become a little problematic.  In the past the Academy has had to face questions over their voting systems before, particularly when it came to the acting categories.  Before, the Academy had a consensus vote determine the winners of it’s Leading and Supporting performances categories, which was the result of an unfortunate accounting anomaly in the 1931 where actors Fredrich March and Wallace Berry ended up in a statistical tie, despite an approximately 50 vote margin between them.  To avoid such an incident again, the Academy opted for the weighted system for many years to avoid another tie.  That was until then Academy President Gregory Peck instituted a change where a straight popular vote would determine the acting choices, even if it resulted in a statistical tie.  Now only the final tally would matter, and wouldn’t you know it, the first time this was put into place, it resulted in an exact tie between Kathrine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter (1968) and Barbara Streisand for Funny Girl (1968).  That’s the risk the Academy took, but in the end, they knew that the vote decided upon without question of validity.

Which is where the problem arises for the Academy today.  Do they continue to tally their votes in the same way, using their weighted system to avoid the potential of a statistically unpopular Best Picture winner, or do they actually go with the base number of votes like any normal democratic system uses.  This is not a new problem today, and in fact has plagued the Academy for several years now.  In many cases like Green Book, it seems like the movie that is generally liked but not quite universally loved is the one that benefits the most from the Academy’s voting system.  Green Book may not have come out as the first choice for perhaps the majority of the Academy’s voters, but it more than likely picked up the majority of the second choices on people’s ballots, and that in itself is what probably propelled it to the top.  In a field where the vote was split, the one that had the most second place votes gets the victory, and that’s the simple way of explaining how what happened, happened.  It wouldn’t surprise me that a similar thing happened with Moonlight’s surprise win over La La Land in 2017.  The vote came pretty close to begin with, and then Moonlight swept up the most second choices to put it over the top, despite the heavily favored La La Land likely being the winner of the first vote.  It’s a result that I’m sure most people didn’t expect would happen, and indeed no one balked at first when La La Land was mistakenly announced as the winner.  But, people are balking now because of Green Book, because it became clear to many that the system in which the Academy uses to determine Best Picture didn’t result in a choice that upset the order in a good way, but instead threw the Academy backwards in terms of progress, revealing more of the insulated, safe, down the middle of the road attitude that has put the Academy out of touch with the rest of the industry as well as most audiences who have long been watching the Academy Awards.

And why was Green Book the movie to inspire such a backlash.  The movie itself is a feel-good, harmonious look at race relations in America during the 1960’s, where a slick-talking and racist Italian-American played by Viggo Mortenson is shown the error of his feelings when he befriends the cultured African-American musician played by Mahershala Ali, and in turn helps that same musician find confidence in himself to embrace his own cultural identity.  In other words, it takes on a tough subject and presents it in an easily digestible way that offends nobody and only reaffirms the target audience’s own perceived progressive attitudes.  In many ways, Green Book feels very old-fashioned, like something that would have easily won the award 30 years ago, and you could argue that it actually did, given it’s many thematic similarities to Driving Miss Daisy (1989), another movie that distilled racial tensions down to a quaint difference of character; only it’s the white person driving the car this time.  Had there been no discussion of Best Picture surrounding it, as well as the politics that surround the Academy, Green Book might not have become this lightning rod post Awards and could have just been treated as a naive but unoffensive film that would have just existed on it’s own.  But, in a year that was in many ways seen as a breakthrough for African-American film-making, honoring Green Book above all others just did not fit the narrative that Hollywood had carved out for itself this year.  Here we were given a movie written and directed by white men that was telling a story about racial prejudice in America, and it did so through the eyes of it’s white protagonist, who I might add is depicted as a racist and is never really brought to task over his behavior in the movie.  Now, I’m not saying that the people involved with this movie should be condemned for making it the way they did, and there is nothing innately racist about their film either (quite the opposite).  But, when you stack it’s sugar-coated presentation against some of the more pointed and challenging films this year regarding race, the fact that the Academy awarded it above the others really shows how much they really didn’t get it this year.

For one thing, the Academy should have really taken into account how it’s newly admitted members of color felt about such a movie.  The Academy has made significant strides in improving diversity within it’s membership it should be noted, but it’s still a predominately white and male dominated collection of voters.  Many of the voting body of the Academy likes to think of themselves as progressive, forward thinking individuals, but their attitudes towards issues is often clouded by their own regards for their self worth and value for their own values.  This often leads to unfortunate self-serving injections of themselves as part of the solution to the world’s problems.  You could see this in past Best Picture winners like Argo (2012), where the Academy voters favored it not because it was a taught, well made thriller, but because it showed the film industry in a heroic light.  The same kind of out of touch, self-posturing can even be seen in the speeches given by winners as well, like George Clooney’s cringy Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech in 2006 where he stated that Hollywood was at the forefront of civil rights when it gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar for Gone With the Wind (1939) long before the Civil Rights movement even began.  Right George; forget Dr. King.  Hollywood should take credit for stopping segregation in America (facepalm).  Essentially, the way the Academy votes is reflective of how they view themselves, and the voting body of the Academy is made up of privileged, well-meaning liberals who want their self-righteousness to be applauded and reinforced in a very public way.  They are attracted to movies that show the redemptive arcs of flawed characters, like the one in Green Book that delivers the obvious statement that “racism is bad” and celebrates the transformation of it’s “enlightened” white protagonist.  But, there is a problem with voting in a way that reaffirms one’s perceived progressive attitudes on important issues; it doesn’t allow for an outside perspective to have it’s say in the matter.

A lot of the outcry over Green Book‘s Best Picture win is coming from the industry’s representatives of color, who feel that the movie doesn’t come even close to accurately portraying the real situation in America with regards to race.  In particular, a large amount of criticism has come from the fact that the movie seemed to have been made with little regards to the African-American perspective that could have helped to make it more authentic.  The movie was co-written by Nick Vallelonga, the real life son of the character Viggo Mortenson plays in the movie; Tony Lip.  The film was meant to be a celebration of Lip’s long time friendship with Dr. Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, and how their friendship became a bridge between racial divisions that was reflective of those across America over the years.  Unfortunately, Vallelonga wrote the screenplay without the consent of Dr. Shirley’s own family, and it’s clear that the script was more or less self-serving in presenting a more rosy picture of his own father rather than making about the friendship between the two.  The Shirley family has since disavowed the movie, saying that it is not true to what actually happened and that it especially takes too many liberties with regards to how both men approached racial divides.  What it essentially says is that the African-American experience did not matter in the making of this movie; all that mattered was that it was going to be this universal story about understanding that made it easily digestible for older Academy members.  And it’s that lack of regard for the Black perspective that really rubbed people the wrong way.  You could especially see that in Spike Lee’s own reaction during and after the awards, where he turned his back to the stage and even attempted to walk out after Green Book was announced as the winner.  Many other African-American representatives within the industry also voiced their doubts about the validity of Green Book’s nomination, rightly pointing out that their voice was not considered as part of the discussion, and this is the thing that has especially fuel the backlash against the movie.

So, with the combination of an absurdly complicated voting system and a voting block of privileged, out-of-touch Academy members who have no real experience with the actual issues that they are judging these on, you get the result of what is now the least liked Best Picture winner in over a decade, and maybe even ever.  Green Book‘s win is a perfect storm of all the bad things that the Academy is known for and it shows just how little their well meaning attempts at becoming more in touch with the times have actually not come to fruition.  It’s hard to get really angry at the Academy most of the time, considering their noble attempts to diversify the Academy and also the fact that an Oscar win means very little in the long run.  But, this year’s result is particularly troubling given the fact that it seems to intentionally ignore the concerns of people out there whose voices have long been overlooked, especially in a benchmark year like this one for filmmakers of color in the industry.  It’s particularly insulting in a year where movies made by black filmmakers, telling uniquely afro-centric stories that spoke to their own experiences, made such incredible progress in gaining mainstream success still ended up losing to a movie made by white filmmakers that tried to lecture us all on race, from a white liberal point of view.  Spike Lee was justified in his disgust, because it showed him that the Academy still wanted to address the evils of racism in America, but on their own terms.  Considering that movies like BlacKkKlansmanIf Beale Street Could Talk and Black Panther could be uncompromising in presenting a defiant African-American perspective and still succeed with mainstream audiences shows that the Academy’s position is greatly out of touch with contemporary tastes.  Hell, Black Panther was the year’s highest grossing movie; how can the Academy ignore those numbers.  That, above everything else, is what left a sour taste in people’s mouths over this years Oscars, regardless of race; that a powerful, insulated body of industry elitists still showed it’s unwillingness to hear from outside voices.  Even if consolations were given out in many of the other categories, the fact that Green Book, a deeply flawed portrayal of a very important subject, was given the highest honor the industry can bestow shows that the Academy’s problems extend far beyond just low ratings.

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