Compared with the other choices available in the best picture category, Green Book was the soft option in a field positively dripping in diversity. And, in my view, that makes it a poor one.
Consider the alternatives. Roma is a careful study of ethnic and economic inequality in Mexico dressed as a piece of beautifully constructed nostalgia. The Favourite shatters our preconceptions of what a costume drama can be and puts female sexuality front and centre. Vice is an unflinching portrait of mendacity and entrenched corruption at the very top of the political system.
What it means to be black in America is at the heart of both BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther. One an angry, funny and (mostly) true story that draws a line from the Confederacy to Charlottseville via the 1970s, the other a fantasy that re-examines the Malcolm X-Martin Luther King dialectic of violent versus passive resistance through the prism of the superhero movie.
(Unfortunately, the best film about the lived black experience, If Beale Street Could Talk, wasn’t among the best picture contenders, though Regina King did win best supporting actress for it. If you have any interest in seeing real life breathed into the slogan “black lives matter”, watch this magnificent, beautiful work adapted from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. It is heartbreaking, yet strangely optimistic.)
A Star is Born retreads an old story about an impossible showbiz romance but Bohemian Rhapsody has at least one foot in the diversity camp. Crowd-pleasing concert re-enactments aside, it addresses (some might say rather timidly) the issue of Freddie Mercury struggling to accept and assert his sexual identity at a time when being gay was far from OK.
Was Green Book the best film of the year? Not on your nelly. Was it even the best among this crop? Again, no way. But it may just have been the least divisive.
Roma had the double stigma of Netflix and subtitles. The Favourite’s liberal use of the C-bomb will have appalled as many as it delighted. Plenty of people still think superhero movies are inherently inferior and Spike Lee is a polemicist whose fury infuses every frame of his sometimes heavy-handed film. And even if you agree with the politics of Adam McKay’s Vice, being lectured like that does get a bit tiresome.
In this field, Green Book may have benefited not from being the best or even many people’s favourite. It might have risen to the top of the pile simply by being a consistent top-two or -three pick. As other films fell away in the preferential voting by which best picture is decided, it is possible that it simply did a Bradbury and stayed upright long enough to claim the prize. Because the votes are secret, we’ll probably never know.
Lee’s anger at the result is understandable (and widely shared), even if his film was never likely to win. It feels like a rerun of 1990, when his masterful and incendiary Do The Right Thing was passed over – not even earning a best picture nomination (though it was nominated for best screenplay) – while Driving Miss Daisy took home the big one.
Three decades on, it suddenly feels like things have barely moved. The Academy may be happy to talk the diversity talk but, when it comes to the crunch, it still prefers a Driving Mr Daisy to actually walking the walk.
Karl is a senior entertainment writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.