An Open Letter to the Next Generation of Academy Voters
By Jaime Ryan
Someday, you will be responsible for deciding what films are Oscar-worthy. Before your time comes to cast votes in the Academy, you should decide what you believe makes a movie great.
The 2019 Oscars sparked a lot of drama this week, which is nothing new. As the Twitter storm following Green Book’s win reminded us, this is not the first and probably not the last time the Academy will make such an egregious error. From Crash, a conceited, preposterous film that convinced audiences it was progressive, winning over Brokeback Mountain in 2006 to Driving Miss Daisy, another “America’s race problem was solved in a car sixty years ago” flick, getting all the glory as Do the Right Thing was snubbed in 1990, the Academy tends to botch the diversity thing.
Though many, including the media this week, frame this as solely the Academy’s problem, I believe this is a filmmaker problem. Green Book represents the struggle many producers face when picking and choosing scripts today: we want to please the people and make something diverse, but it can’t be controversial or we won’t get votes, and historical dramedies are total Oscar-bait, so let’s pick whatever fits the mold. This formula causes a lot of problems, the most massive of which is this: white male liberals are telling underrepresented people’s stories.
I sympathize with Nick Vallelonga. The story is about his dad, so of course he’s the perfect person to tell it, right? Unfortunately for Nick, this story is way more about Dr. Don Shirley than it is about Tony ‘Lip’. While Tony’s side of the story was well accounted by letters from Tony to his wife and audio recordings taken by Nick, Shirley’s side was supplemented by audio recordings from the documentary Lost Bohemia, which very briefly features Shirley. Even briefer was Shirley’s account of his relationship with Vallelonga in the documentary. These sources pose an obvious issue, one that Green Book shares with its fellow historical race-relations dramas: the film frames the story of a black person through the perspective of a racist white man. How does using racist white men to tell black people’s stories change the dialogue around race in this country? How does it change power dynamics between black and white people? It doesn’t. The power to write history remains in the hands of the victor, which in this country is the white man.
Not only is Green Book diegetically told from a white man’s perspective, the team behind the film was comprised of white men. Out of the eleven people with producer credits on Green Book, two of them are black. All six production managers are white. None of the seven assistant directors are black. Equally upsetting, the highest billed actor of color after Mahershala Ali as Dr. Don Shirley is Kenneth Israel as Bronx Floor Repairman #1. How does hiring a vast-majority white cast and crew change the diversity problem the film industry suffers? How does does it change power dynamics between black and white filmmakers? It doesn’t.
This is where it gets difficult, future Academy members. This is where we return to the question that I and many filmmakers have been asking for a while: is it better to make a film about marginalized people at the risk of misrepresenting them, or to not make the film at all?
My answer is this:
Not every story is yours to tell.
One more time for the people in the back:
Not every story is yours to tell.
If your dad was a racist but he worked for a supremely talented black pianist, tell people about it at parties. Don’t make a movie about it. Don’t vote for a movie about it.
If, like Paul Haggis, you get carjacked in LA and are inspired to write a fever-dream about how everybody’s racist and therefore it’s okay that you’re racist, try therapy. Don’t pitch that script to studios. Don’t vote for that script.
If, like Alfred Uhry, you wrote a white-savior play and want to squeeze a little more money out of it, shame on you twice for polluting both the film industry and the theatre industry with more garbage. Don’t adapt it into a film. Don’t vote for that adaptation.
If you have a story on your heart that you believe in, that you think can start a new conversation about race, that you want to bring to life for the hope of real change for marginalized community, tell a filmmaker who is a member of that marginalized community. Pitch it to them. Ask what they think. If they like it, hire them. Build your cast and crew to reflect the story you’re telling and the movie you’re making. That movie, the one about the oppressed, created by the oppressed, the one that serves as a beacon of hope to the oppressed that things can change — that is a great movie. Vote for that one.