The Academy’s blunders: On impactful firsts and repeated mistakes at the Oscars

Yasmina Cabrera

The 91st Academy Awards closed out the awards season with a night of honorable firsts as well as predictable blunders. The ceremony began at a high point as the glowing Regina King earned her first Oscar for her supporting performance in Barry Jenkin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler received awards in Best Costume Design and Best Production Design, respectively, for Black Panther, making it the first time in Oscar history for multiple Black women to be awarded on the same night. “I give this straight to all of those who come next, to keep going, to never give up, and when you think it’s impossible just remember to say this: I did my best, and my best is good enough,” Beachler ended her emotional speech. 

In what seemed like an ironic twist, Bohemian Rhapsody, which is widely believed to be the most laughably edited film this past year, managed to win Best Editing over Vice and BlacKkKlansman, it also inexplicably beat both First Man and A Quiet Place, for best sound editing. 

Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse unsurprisingly received the award for best animated feature as many critics have acclaimed its ushering of a new golden standard for both animated and superhero films, and whose achievements in cinematography and editing were outstanding enough for it to have contended in the Best Picture category. 

Nominated for the fifth time, Spike Lee finally earned the first Oscar of his career for his screenplay adaptation of BlackkKlansman. While it was gratifying to see Lee finally receive recognition for his contributions to filmmaking, it was disappointing that BlackkKlansman was the film to have done it. Lee’s heroic portrayal of a police officer as an ally to Black radical leaders in Colorado Springs has been left uncorroborated and contributes to revisionist history of the Black radical movements of the civil rights era and the lethal threat they faced in law enforcement agencies. Barry Jenkins was left empty-handed in this category even though he succeeded in the daunting task of being the only filmmaker to ever adapt James Baldwin’s work for the screen. Green Book won Best Original Screenplay over The Favourite even though there was almost nothing original about the film’s premise or the way it was written. 

What may very well have been the best film of 2018, Roma, predictably won awards for Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film. It also got Alfonso Cuarón his second Oscar for direction, making this the fifth time in six years that a Mexican director has won. 

The last award of the night and the most controversial win by far, went to  Green Book for Best Picture. In this moment the Academy’s enthusiastic reception for new voices and styles in filmmaking became undone. In the audience, Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman shared an all-knowing look with his cast, and Spike Lee even left his seat, looking for a way out during the acceptance speech. It wasn’t hard to tell why. 

An almost completely white ensemble stood up yet again to receive its cookie for 2018’s designated white savior film. Green Book, a story about Don Shirley, a Black pianist during the 1960s, and the white man who was brave enough to be his acquaintance, was almost exclusively crafted by and made for the consumption of a white audience looking to absolve itself from guilt while retaining the luxury of ignoring the real racial complexities of our time.

 Writer and director Xavier Burgin put it best when he tweeted, “The tragedy about all of this is we’ll still be talking about Roma, Black Panther and BlackkKlansman decades from now. Damn near no one is going to remember Green Book by next year because it didn’t give a damn about the community it was supposed to be made for.” 

A film that was self-dubbed as a shining example of “acceptance” displayed the Academy’s existing ignorance. Ignorance of Don Shirley’s real experiences and his family’s disappointment with this film, ignorance of the real stories that were exceptionally created by and for people of color this year, ignorance of the real love and pain that went into creating them and ignorance of the uncomfortable truths these films were created to reveal. 

This year’s Oscars proved what they have proven every single year since that first ceremony in 1929. It’s a nice gesture to be recognized by one’s peers, but the honesty with which the audience perceives one’s work is what truly determines its real cultural and artistic significance and allows it to be remembered for years to come. 

 Yasmina Cabrera ’22 is from Bronx, N.Y.