The question was asked to me on Twitter if any movie was the “Green Book” of this year. There was some murmurings about whether or not that movie was The Trial of the Chicago 7, as some on Twitter seem to be strangely suggesting.
To understand the “Green Book Effect” one has to really understand that we’re talking about at least two, maybe three, different realities.
Two of those realities are valid. One is not. The two that are valid are people who watched the movie and genuinely loved it. They believed it told a great story, had wonderful performances throughout and made them feel good by the end because it felt like it was about progress in some sense.
The other valid reality would be anyone who watched it and felt uncomfortable because the perspective of a black gay man’s experience told by white straight male storytellers made the film feel inauthentic.
The least valid reality is the most influential one for our purposes here. And that is the balloon of hysteria that arose on Twitter in reaction to Green Book’s success. They mostly left the film alone until it started winning the top prizes. The critics had thrown their lot 100% behind Roma and they fully expected the Academy would make history with the first “foreign language” film to win Best Picture. They would do that the following year, probably because of what happened with Green Book and Roma.
But Roma was never going to win. If you gave voters only those two choices there is very little chance they were going to pick Roma. It was a beautiful film but it was not a general audience crowd-pleaser like Green Book is. In almost every case, a Best Picture winner is that one movie you can sit anyone down in front of and they will at least get it if not love it. They have to get it. Many could not and did not get why Roma was receiving so much praise.
Granted, the Academy’s demographics have changed in the past few years so this definition is also shifting somewhat. I do still believe anyone could “get” Parasite once they got over the bias of subtitles. But we’ll need a few more years of winners to see whether my theory continues to hold.
Readers of this site already know, more or less, my feelings on the topic of Green Book, lest we forget – which are controversial to the groupthink on Twitter and on other sites that cover the Oscars.
Most people agree with me, by the way, but most people don’t have the loudest voices online. Film Twitter tends to dictate the narrative and the journalists pick up on that narrative. If they say a movie is racist, journalists sometimes go along with it. If they say sexism is why a person did not get a Best Director nomination, journalists go along with it.
But even if people who cover the race objected to the treatment of Green Book, they weren’t going to say anything. It was way too risky. If they did say anything it would be in support of the attempts to bring the film down. That’s really the way you build clout online in the insular world of film criticism or bloggers or fans online. You go along or else face being ignored or being attacked.
Here is how I see the “Green Book Effect.” To me, it’s a direct response to the rise of Donald Trump who threatened the utopian vision for the country, the industry, the arts, social justice, and everything else under the previous POTUS, Barack Obama. I remember writing a piece about Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton celebrating it as the ultimate expression of the Obama era. It was not only a project conceived partly by Obama’s influence (directly and indirectly) but its message – that America belongs to everyone, with its inclusive and inventive casting choices. If JFK had Camelot, Obama had Hamilton.
There is no way to really overstate just how shocking Trump’s win was on the community that watches and writes about and votes on the Oscars. Of course, it would traumatize the entire Left whose Utopia was not only disrupted by a person they found to be the embodiment of everything they defined as offensive, but also that the offensive person mocked them, trolled them, egged them on in a public display that drew ratings across the board. It would have been a wake-up call to the Left that there is a large part of this country they simply do not see, but it hasn’t become that yet.
Because they could not do anything about Trump, they began to target people and places where they would have an impact – those on the left who cared about what people thought of them. Thus, an accusation of sexual harassment or racism made against someone on the right is going to have less of an impact than it would with someone on the left. The more you care, the more moral you see yourself, the more you value being seen as “good” the more vulnerable you are.
The two areas that would be the biggest problems for the left would be around sex crimes and racism. The Me Too era, the recent BLM protests – both of these are massive movements that have purged hundreds of people from the left in order to try to reach back and return the Left to the country we had under Obama. Some said once Biden won things would calm down but that hasn’t happened yet. The reason is that the dynamics put in place remain in place. Even if Trump is gone that hasn’t made people feel more secure about their country. If anything, they feel worse on both sides of the aisle.
Hysteria is something that is hard to control. We are genetically predisposed to react instantly, with fight or flight mode fully engaged and all logic flying out the window. It’s a protective mechanism in real life. But online it quickly turns into a rage mob that needs a daily sacrifice. They hear something that scares them and that fear spreads quickly in the age of social media and it grows as it spreads. There is no way to distinguish reality from hysteria. If someone makes the accusation of racism everyone instantly believes it, whether it exists in reality or not. There is no way out of it either. No one can say “I am not racist” or “this film isn’t racist.” It’s accused and so it must be. Sometimes these events last only a day or so. Other times they go on longer. I myself have been the target more than a few times.
With Trump out of the way and banished from social media (at least for now), the extreme actions by the Left that I’ve been talking about for a few years is suddenly becoming more visible to more people. We’re still very much caught up in the mass hysteria dynamic but others are starting to notice that there is something really wrong going on, even if few people have the guts to stand up to any of it.
Now you are more able to see editors and respected journalists being fired, movies being removed from collections, books being banned from eBay or Amazon. Even with Trump gone, the fear and hysteria continues because that is just how extreme it was. It will die down eventually. But it is going to take a while.
Probably in ten years no one is going to watch La La Land and think twice about Ryan Gosling “explaining” Jazz. No one is going to watch Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and see as a film that excuses police brutality. No one is going to watch Green Book and walk away thinking, man that was a racist movie. The accusations were made, the fear spread, the fear was palpable and in two of these cases the movies were brought down. In Green Book’s case, either voters were ignorant to the protests and outrage or else they pushed back against it.
The fear, as far as the Oscar race goes, mostly is aimed at white men. Not always but most of the time. If Trump was the ultimate evil and he embodied the white male patriarchy then any white man is potentially suspect. The fight against Trump was transposed to a fight against people who could be punished.
So, why isn’t there a Green Book this year? Because no film by a white male has won any major awards.
New York Film Critics: First Cow
Los Angeles: Small Axe
National Society of Film Critics: Nomadland
NBR: Da 5 Bloods
Critics Choice: Nomadland
WGA: Promising Young Woman, Borat (the only one)
While Mank and Chicago 7 did pick up a few awards here and there, as did Minari and Promising Young Woman, the frontrunner has always been Nomadland. But, if the Trial of the Chicago 7 had won the Globe, or if it wins the PGA or the SAG ensemble then it will become a target and you’d likely see outrage rise on Twitter and people who value their status on Film Twitter would join in, maybe a few would offer up a defense, but in general, the higher the status, the more likely they are to go along with the wave of outrage. Very few people are willing to risk their online clout to defend any movie accused of racism or misogyny.
The one film that people on Twitter reminded me of that got the Green Book treatment this year was Hillbilly Elegy. Now imagine that movie being a strong Best Picture contender and you can see where this could go and how badly and how quickly. But it wouldn’t even need to be a movie that critics felt comfortable trashing beyond an inch of its life. It could be a movie people mostly liked until it started winning stuff.
This isn’t a year, at least not so far, that the Green Book effect will be in play. It is worth noting, however, for the future to see whether it really was a Trump thing, or if it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future.
I have never believed Green Book deserved the treatment it got, certainly not how the filmmakers’ past was rifled through and exposed. To me, it was redirected anger at Trump that caused a lot of the anger. The voters didn’t seem to care and still picked the film to win Best Picture. Although now that the outrage has become validated by the journalists who cover the race most people in the film coverage industry believe Green Book got what it deserved and that the Academy, which had picked Moonlight just two years before, was racist for voting for Green Book.
Our system is still very much set up to react to people accused or something from their past being uncovered. There is no way to really control it, save for the dreaded apology some are forced to spit out to salvage their careers. So far I have not seem many come back from that apology. It’s once accused, forever guilty. Until people at the top grow a pair and find a way to push back, and ignore the Twitter hysteria for a day or two, until they move on to something else, whatever this odd moment in our history is we’re living through will continue.