White Comfort, Black Films, and the Oscars

Jonathan Kim
Feb 6, 2019 · 14 min read

2019's Best Picture nominees show the kind of blackness the Academy rewards

One of my absolute favorite movies of 2018 — perhaps the best year for movies that I can remember — was The Hate U Give, which is based on the award-winning, best-selling novel by first-time author Angie Thomas. It tells the story of Starr Carter, a black teenager living in two worlds: the largely white, wealthy private high school she attends and the black, mostly poor neighborhood where her family lives. While accepting of the separate identities she inhabits for each place, she is forced to grapple with her racial identity when a white police officer guns down her childhood friend (who is black and unarmed) during a traffic stop. You can read my review of The Hate U Give here.

Now, I understand how the Oscars work well enough to get why the movies we love, as well as the ones that have the most impact, usually aren’t the ones that win Oscars. There are a host of political considerations that come into play which often have nothing to do with the quality or popularity of a film, which I discussed in a previous article about why A Star Is Born probably won’t win Best Picture. But in that same article, I also talked about why I think The Hate U Give — a winner of numerous awards and lauded by critics and moviegoers — could score a Moonlight-style upset with its bold takes on systemic racism, police violence, racial profiling, black empowerment, and what brown people must endure to get by in white spaces. If anything, I was certain that The Hate U Give would be nominated (and would win) for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Russell Hornsby’s wonderful, multi-dimensional performance as Starr’s father Maverick, a former gang member turned small business owner who teaches his children to have self-respect through Black Power ideology.

But when the 2019 Oscar nominations were announced, I was shocked, angered, and saddened to see that The Hate U Give didn’t receive a single nomination. Not. One.

Now the Academy definitely has plenty of cover this year to avoid accusations of #OscarsSoWhite as far as black nominees are concerned. After all, a whopping three Best Picture nominees have black main characters and address issues of race. But when you look at those nominees — BlacKkKlansman, Green Book, and Black Panther — it becomes clear that there are portrayals of blackness and discussions about race that the Academy is clearly uncomfortable having, while more sanitized depictions of those things are considered to be worthy of celebration.

So let’s take a look at them.

Green Book

Many are holding up Green Book as a textbook example of how little progress has been made in Hollywood when it comes to dealing with depictions of racism and reconciliation. Despite being neither a box office hit nor an overwhelming critical favorite, Green Book was somehow the big winner at the 2019 Golden Globes, taking home trophies for Best Musical/Comedy, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), and Best Screenplay, while also winning the top honor at the Producers Guild of America Awards.

While entertaining, sometimes funny, and anchored by two strong performances from Viggo Mortensen and Ali as an odd couple forging an unlikely friendship during a road trip through the Jim Crow-era deep South of the 1960s, the film has rightly been criticized for what it does and doesn’t say about the realities of racism in America — both then and now — and the way Hollywood has historically attempted to redeem, excuse, or paper over America’s racist past and present by celebrating a white character who learns to see a black person as a full human.

In Wesley Morris’ great New York Times piece “Why Do the Oscars Keep Falling for Racial Reconciliation Fantasies?”, Morris compares Green Book to films like Driving Miss Daisy(obviously), the Help, and the recent film the Upside where “the wheels of interracial friendship are greased by employment, in which prolonged exposure to the black half of the duo enhances the humanity of his white, frequently racist counterpart. All the optimism of racial progress — from desegregation to integration to equality to something like true companionship — is stipulated by terms of service.” And through watching these films, white viewers are able to vicariously pat themselves on the back for how far America — and by extension, the viewers themselves — have come in overcoming racial prejudice. Simultaneously, these viewers can delude themselves into thinking that the racist horrors and indignities of the past weren’t actually so bad, either because of the contributions of helpful, empathetic white characters that white viewers relate to, or by filmmakers soft-pedaling racism’s awful realities.

But perhaps worse is the way Green Book draws an equivalency between Mortensen’s Italian-American tough guy Tony Lip and Ali’s pianist/composer Don Shirley as two flawed men who have a lot they can learn from each other.

You see, Tony, like probably the majority of uneducated, working-class white men of the time, is very racist, even throwing two of his own water glasses in the trash after seeing two black handymen in his house drinking out of them. Yet soon after Tony accepts the job as Don’s driver/security for a two-month tour of the deep South, the vast majority of Tony’s racism seems to disappear almost immediately and effortlessly, eliminating any kind of meaningful emotional arc for his character. This implies that overcoming a lifetime of racist indoctrination and reinforcement is an easy feat if you are, fundamentally, a good white person. Tony then spends the majority of the film being surprised by the racist treatment Don suffers — even though Tony and probably everyone he knows wouldn’t hesitate to treat any other black person the same way — and defending Don against it or attempting to talk his offenders into treating Don better. Don’s main contribution to Tony’s growth is simply being black around Tony and helping Tony write romantic letters to his wife back in New York.

And what is Don’s flaw? Apparently, it’s that Don isn’t “black” enough because he is highly educated, wealthy, aloof, refined, and gay, putting him out of touch with “real” black people whom Tony purports to know and understand better than Don does. So Tony takes it upon himself to expose Don to “real” black culture by making Don eat fried chicken (which Don has never tasted), encouraging Don to listen to popular black musicians like Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, and generally trying to get Don to loosen up. Setting aside the fact that Don is, of course, an actual black person regardless of how he acts, how much money he has, and what he likes or dislikes, Green Book creates a world where the most important difference between Tony and Don isn’t race, but class, even in a country and time where being black in the wrong town after dark could get you killed. But according to Tony — and, it seems, the makers of Green Book — it’s the affectations of Don’s class that prevent him from being truly “black”, even though his class provides him no protection from the racism he faces. It’s Don’s blackness, not his class, that requires Tony’s protection.

Mark Harris writing in Vulture nails the nature of the film’s false equivalency in his article “Who Was Green Book For?”:

Tony needs to stop referring to black people as “jungle bunnies,” but also Don needs to stop saying highfalutin’ things like, “It is my feeling that your diction, however charming it may be in the tristate area, could use some finessing.” Tony needs to broaden his horizons and learn how to write his wife a nice letter…but also Don needs to learn to enjoy fried chicken and Aretha Franklin and be more comfortable in his skin. Tony needs to grow up (because racism is, in movies like Green Book, primarily a sign of immaturity), but also Don needs to loosen up; he’s so constricted that he owns a chess set with only white pieces! Tony needs to get a little smarter, but also Don is too smart, like Obama was.

Sadly, the awards success of Green Book shows that too many in liberal Hollywood still think that the correct way to portray, discuss, and attempt to deal with racial divisions in America today is to pretend that, in essence, they don’t exist — like those who claim that they aren’t racist because they “don’t see race.” That it’s really our individual differences that matter most, even when the color of your skin could get you humiliated, harassed, assaulted, or killed. That’s not the kind of fantasy America needs if we are to deal with the complex realities surrounding race today.

Black Panther

Black Panther was one of my favorite movies of 2018, and there are many reasons to root for it, including it being the first Marvel movie with a black main character, the film’s nearly all-black cast, and the message the film’s success sends to an industry that has long believed that movies with majority-minority casts do not have wide (meaning “white”) appeal. Black Panther is also fascinating for its depiction of Wakanda, a fictional, futuristic African nation that has never been colonized by Europeans and has developed its own culture and technology independent of both Western and Asian influences. Reading the emotional reactions of black people after seeing the film, especially in Africa, are enough to move a person (like me) to tears.

Through the words of the film’s villain Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), Black Panther also contains powerful statements against white colonialism while calling for people of African descent to fight back against their oppressors. From his opening scene, Killmonger calls out Europeans for centuries spent robbing Africans of their artifacts, history, and anything else they could take. He also calls out Wakanda’s elders for ignoring the suffering of black people throughout history, instead electing to remain hidden from the world in order to protect their inherited wealth of vibranium, the strongest and most valuable metal on the planet. “Y’all sitting up here all comfortable. Must feel good,” Killmonger tells the elders, “Meanwhile, there’s about two billion people all over the world that look like us, but their lives are a lot harder, and Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all.” His plan is to defeat Wakanda’s king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in ritual combat, take over the throne, then use his position to spread the kingdom’s vibranium-powered weapons to oppressed people around the world, establishing a new empire led by Killmonger and Wakanda.

What makes Killmonger such a unique and compelling villain is that, though his strategy is objectionable, the premise and motivations behind it are arguably correct. The best evidence of this is that by the end of the film, the film’s hero T’Challa acknowledges the truth of Killmonger’s argument that Wakanda has been irresponsible and wrong to remain isolated and hidden on the sidelines of history when the power and technology they possess could be used to help struggling people around the world. But instead of accomplishing this through armed revolution as Killmonger wants, T’Challa chooses a non-violent path, first by establishing a social services center in Killmonger’s (and the Black Panther Party’s) hometown of Oakland, California, then announcing to the United Nations that Wakanda will begin sharing its knowledge and resources by reaching out to other nations, hoping to be an example of how all people of the planet should act as “one single tribe.”

So how does a movie with a nearly all-black cast, where both the hero and the villain agree that they must step in to repair the damage done to the world caused by centuries of European dominance, get nominated for Best Picture when a movie like The Hate U Give doesn’t?

The simplest and probably biggest reason is that, as a science fiction superhero movie, the Academy doesn’t really see Black Panther as a film to be taken seriously. While being an impressive enough superhero movie to be the first to earn a Best Picture nomination, Black Panther is still a superhero movie, which most older people (and the Academy is full of those) still regard as a genre primarily for children and immature adults. Remember, the Academy historically doesn’t even consider comedies to be worthy of high honors, so a movie where the main character is a man from a fictional futuristic country, has superhuman powers, and dresses in a cat outfit probably doesn’t have much of a chance against films deemed more “serious”, “important”, and “artistic”. The Academy has been looking for ways to get more young people to watch the Oscars telecast, and Black Panther’s nomination may be a means to that end. The fact that a superhero movie has any sociopolitical commentary to offer at all is worthy of a pat on the head, but isn’t anything that needs to be reckoned with.

There’s also the fact that the character who most loudly calls for an armed uprising is the villain of Black Panther and is ultimately punished for his beliefs, despite the fact that his rise to power is accomplished legitimately in accordance with Wakanda’s laws of succession. And when T’Challa vows that Wakanda will end its isolation and become more involved in solving the world’s problems, he never explicitly says that it has been the historical oppression of brown people by European nations that is often at the root of those problems. Instead of putting the blame where it arguably belongs and pledging that Wakanda will be a counterweight for poor nations being victimized by rich white ones, T’Challa gives an answer that is more palatable and comforting for white people, essentially saying, “We all must do better. We all have a lot to learn. We all must come together.” It’s a sentiment reminiscent of the message in Green Book, where the response to systemic racism and discrimination against black people is to say that both sides have their flaws. Nobody’s perfect.

BlacKkKlansman

Even though it won the Grand Prix award at the 2018 Cannes film festival and has gotten good reviews, I’m pretty confused about why BlacKkKlansman got nominated for Best Picture. It’s by all means an entertaining, funny, sometimes tense, well-made film by perhaps the greatest black filmmaker ever, but it hardly seems like a Best Picture contender.

But when viewed through the lens of white comfort, BlacKkKlansman’s nomination makes a lot of sense. At a time when the supposedly liberal media refers to the racism of Trump supporters as “racial anxiety”, the bar for what America is willing to call racism has been set impossibly high. Anyone who hasn’t been documented saying “nigger” or doesn’t proudly admit to hating people because of their skin color can now claim that they aren’t a racist, even if they encourage, benefit from, defend, deny, or simply do nothing about systemic racism, prejudice, or inequality. The alt-right and modern-day white supremacists claim that they aren’t racists, but are simply defending white culture and history from a tide of liberalism and multiculturalism bent on erasing it. Donald Trump, despite his long history of racist incidents and years of making racist accusations about Barack Obama’s citizenship, can claim with a straight face that he is “the least racist person” there is.

Essentially, the only people left in America who we can all agree are racists are self-identified Nazis and members of the Klu Klux Klan, and it’s in this environment that BlacKkKlansman exists. The “real” racists in the film are caricatures who white audiences can easily recognize, ridicule, despise, and differentiate themselves from without having to confront any uncomfortable questions about the insidiousness of systemic racism that is so ingrained and persistent as to be almost invisible to many white people, even those who consider themselves to be champions of justice and equality. Ron Stallworth, the black policeman played by John David Washington who infiltrates the Klan through phone conversations, is painted more as a white ally who will do anything to be on the all-white Colorado Springs police force, including doing menial work in the records room, going undercover in a black group fighting for civil rights, and ignoring the historical antagonism between the police and non-white people in America, as well as the racism that kept people like Ron off the Colorado Springs police force to begin with.

And if you read rapper/director Boots Riley’s extensive critique of BlacKkKlansman, it becomes even more clear that the film, as with Green Book, is aimed at a white audience looking for a positive, uncomplicated, supposedly based-on-truth tale of black and white people teaming up in the fight against racism.

In his three-page response to BlacKkKlansman, Riley calls out the many fictional parts of the movie that have the effect of making Stallworth and the Colorado Springs police force seem more heroic and committed to fighting white supremacists than the reality suggests. The real Stallworth spent three years undercover in a black radical group (not just infiltrating a single event as the movie portrays) at a time when the FBI’s counter intelligence program (Cointelpro) was actively trying to disrupt and destroy these organizations, often through inciting violence between members or with other groups. In the film, much is made of the fact that Stallworth’s partner (Adam Driver) who attends KKK meetings in Stallworth’s place is Jewish, but Riley points out that the real detective the character is based on wasn’t Jewish, and this fictional detail was only added to create dramatic tension and make it seem like the detective was taking a greater risk than he did. Near the film’s end, there’s a fictional scene where the entire Colorado Springs police force bands together to oust a racist cop in their midst, while reality shows that police officers routinely close ranks and defend cops who murder unarmed black suspects, while officers who racially profile, target, and harass minorities often do so for years without repercussions. These are just a few of the examples Riley highlights, and his entire response to BlacKkKlansman is definitely worth reading.

Lee ends BlacKkKlansman with footage of modern-day white supremacists to show that violent white extremists are still a force in America today, especially since they’ve been empowered, emboldened, and legitimized by Trump and his administration. Still, it’s hard not to feel that BlacKkKlansman, like Green Book, is viewing the recent past as a time when race relations were not so bad that a few well-meaning, helpful white people couldn’t take the edge off it and win some important victories for the good guys. Not coincidentally, that’s the kind of thing that well-meaning white liberals, who probably make up the majority of Academy voters, love to see.

BlacKkKlansman is a far cry from Do the Right Thing, Lee’s groundbreaking 1989 film that took a hard look at the tensions, complexities, and realities of race relations on a single block in Brooklyn, and how something as mundane as a hot day could be enough to send things careening out of control. That film, a landmark for both black and independent cinema and still considered to be Lee’s best and most important work, did nothing to sugarcoat the simmering fears and resentments different racial and ethnic groups might feel towards one another, and certainly wasn’t meant to coddle white viewers to make them feel comfortable that everything was fine and headed in the right direction. As Vincent Canby of the New York Times put it, “Do the Right Thing doesn’t call attention to progress, it asks for more. Now.”

Do the Right Thing received two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello) and Original Screenplay, losing both. It was not nominated for Best Picture, which Kim Basinger drew attention to when she went off script during the 1990 Oscars telecast, saying that this notable snub might have happened because Do the Right Thing “might tell the greatest truth of all.”

And what film won Best Picture in 1990? A movie about a racist white person who is redeemed by spending time in a car with a black person in the deep South: Driving Miss Daisy.

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