The Best Picture winner of the 91st Academy Awards was Green Book, and here’s why. In what has been a very long, fraught and at times confusing awards season, the Best Picture race proved to be especially intriguing. While the top prize at the Oscars is often considered the safest bet in terms of predictions, the past decade or so has done much to disprove that assumption. There was the time The King's Speech beat The Social Network in 2011, then 12 Year a Slave's surprise win over the assumed victor Gravity. Spotlight won in 2016, even though The Revenant was easily the favorite, and then, of course, there was the fiasco with La La Land and Moonlight. Last year’s winner, The Shape of Water, was considered a safe choice, but it was still a movie about a romance with a fish-man. Suffice to say, the past few years of Oscar chat has seen the game change greatly, and nowhere was that more evident than in this year’s race. Even before the Academy’s endless circle of bad decisions and U-turns made it all the more difficult to watch, it felt like there was a lot riding on 2019’s Best Picture: do the Academy move with the times or stick with the status quo?
It turns out that, much to the surprise of everyone there, the Academy chose the latter, as Peter Farrelly’s biographical drama Green Book took home top prize, as well as Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali. The choice was an obvious shock going by the reaction to those in the room and on social media.
In what was assumed to be a race to the top between Roma and Black Panther, the Academy took a decidedly more middlebrow approach with Green Book winning. Really, this shouldn’t have been as big a surprise was it was. In reality, Green Book is the most Oscar-ish movie of 2018.
Green Book is Pure Oscar Bait
Green Book ticks so many boxes in terms of Oscar-friendly film-making: it’s a biopic; it’s a historical piece; it stars two beloved actors; it's directed by something of an industry favorite; it’s very old-school in its film-making and writing; and it’s the kind of neat approach to the tangled issue of racism that has always played well to the majority white Academy. There’s a reason people kept comparing the movie to Driving Miss Daisy, which won Best Picture in 1990. Green Book felt especially archaic in a year where film pushed so many boundaries across budgets, genres, and philosophies. For better or worse, that seemed to help it.
Green Book Appealed to Older Oscar Voters
As evidenced by the many “brutally honest Oscar ballot” pieces that filled the awards conversation this year, Green Book was popular with older Academy members, many of whom pushed back against the conversations surrounding the movie and its creative team. Despite great steps made to diversify the Academy’s membership, the pool of Oscar voters remains heavily white, heavily male, and older in age. This block were less likely to vote for something as prickly and esoteric as Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, a period drama that eschews so many of the genre’s conventions, or BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s most mainstream film in over a decade but still one that forces audiences to confront the current political climate and their own culpability in it.
The perceied two-way battle between Roma and Black Panther may have been too messy for some voters who did not wish to reward Disney or Netflix, despite both films being hugely popular, critically celebrated and part of a cultural zeitgeist that cried out to be rewarded. Green Book fits, however obliquely or falsely, into that “underdog” narrative in the shadow of those two giants, and that has always appealed to the Academy (remember how Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan in part because Miramax played up the angle that they were the indie dark horse compared to Dreamworks’s might).
The Preferential Ballot Helped Green Book’s Oscar Chances
Since 2009, the Best Picture award has been decided on by a preferential voting system, wherein Academy members are tasked with ranking the nominees. All the number one votes are counted up, and if a film does not receive over 50% of the vote after this first round, then the film with the lowest number of one votes is removed and the ballots move onto who got the most number two votes. It's a tricky system, but considered one that offers a more interesting race than first past the post (one vote, one movie). This can leave divisive films in the dust while a safer consensus pick can storm to the victory by getting just the right amount of votes across the board.
In 2019, Roma and Black Panther may have been stronger passion picks but it seems they didn't have enough of those voters in their corner. Many thought Green Book would prove too divisive to win on these terms but it proved to be just right for this flawed system. It's unlikely the film would have won in first round votes, but was likable enough to place higher in second and third place.
As always, the Best Picture win is no indication of merit and plenty of terrible movies have taken home the top prize in the Academy’s decades of work. Still, in a year where Hollywood and the Oscars had such immense opportunities to carve forward a radical new path that would have prepared them for the future, it seems like such a waste that Green Book proved ultimately victorious.