That Green Book won for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards is old news by now. It was a real “feel-good” Hollywood movie, the kind that left many audiences feeling a bit more hopeful about the future of race relations in the U. S.
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It is no coincidence that I’m white and I had this reaction.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, was also nominated for best picture. It’s a gorgeous film. I could say I loved it, but like the movie itself, it made me question what “love” means. I left the movie theater feeling unsettled, and months later, I’m still thinking about it.
Why Green Book was selected as best picture over a film like Roma reveals a lot about how racism works and not just in the film industry.
To understand the mechanisms of racism, let’s start with a comparison of the two films:
Both Green Book and Roma are period dramas based on true stories. Both feature working class protagonists, the story in both revolve around the main character’s relationship to their employer.
In Green Book, Tony Vallelonga, a working class Italian-American who works as a bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub in New York in the early 1960s. He is hired by classical pianist Don Shirley, to chauffeur him on a concert tour throughout the South.
Shirley is African American and in 1962, legal racial segregation, and extra-legal violence, dictate where African Americans are allowed to travel and stay. Tony’s job is to get Shirley to his concerts safely and protect him from the high likelihood of white racial violence.
Roma, takes place in Mexico City in the early 1970s, in a time when the Mexican government repressed opposition through violence that resulted in student massacres, as well as massacres of whole villages.
The main character in Roma, Cleo, is an indigenous maid/nanny who works for a white middle class Mexican family. Her employer, Sra. Sofia, has light skin and more European features in contrast to Cleo’s darker skin and indigenous appearance. These physical differences define their status and place within racial and class hierarchies in Mexican society.
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In both films, the evolving relationship between employer and employee allows the filmmakers to explore the larger racial and class power dynamics at work, and both films, albeit in very different ways, explore the possibility of friendship and even love within structural oppression.
There are crucial difference between the two films, and these difference help us understand how Hollywood “feel good” movies about race enable white Americans like myself to feel hopeful about a “colorblind” future, while leaving the actual realities of racism unexamined and firmly in place.
Now let’s look at the differences in the two films, starting with how each was distributed.
Both films nominated for multiple academy awards include best picture of the year and best director. Like other Academy Award nominated films, Green Book was shown in movie theaters across the U.S. starting in mid November and is still showing in movie theaters across the country.
Roma won this year’s Academy Award for best cinematography, yet it was screened in a few selected art houses for three weeks in December, is available for viewing on Netflix. AMC, Regal and Cinemark — the country’s three largest movie theater chains — refused to screen Roma in their movie theaters, along with other best picture nominees, because the film was not released in one of their theaters.
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Although director Alphonso Cuarón believed that Roma is best viewed on the big screen, he also knew that it was highly unlikely that a foreign film, in black and white, with subtitles, would be picked up for major distribution in the U.S.
In order to ensure an audience for the film, he sold it to Netflix. Netflix was able to give the film a brief, three-week art cinemas in mid- December mainly so that it could qualify for awards.
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The only moviegoers that actually saw Roma in the movie theater were those that went to the limited art house release in mid-December. It is ironic that you cannot watch the film that won for best cinematography on the big screen anywhere in the U.S.
Film distribution at first glance appears to be primarily due to economic considerations — what film movie theaters calculate will make the most money. But decision about what films to distribute have historically been shaped by ethnocentrism.
In the 20th century, Hollywood- style American movies dominated world movie production and distribution. Along with popular music, Hollywood movies were perhaps the U.S.’s most popular American export.
Movies are cultural products — tell and distribute stories and contain within them world views: Hollywood movies feature American protagonists, American problems, American realities, and distinctly American world views.
To this day Hollywood movies are the most widely distributed within the U.S. and to some extent, worldwide, makes it easy for Americans moviegoers to believe that they are the center of the world and that Hollywood-style stories are universal human stories, for these are the stories we most often see. We may occasionally get exposed to other cultural perspectives — as moviegoers who actually saw Roma did, these perspectives are the exception — so much so that the dominance of American stories and the world views they contain, is neither threatened or questioned.
Ethnocentrism — the belief in the superiority of one’s own cultural values, and the tendency to understand and judge other cultures and their values through the lens of one’s own values — is not the same as white racism. Other countries may be ethnocentric as well.
However ethnocentrism exemplified in film production and historic distribution, show us one key aspect of how white racism operates within the U.S. and not just with respect to films.
As with ethnocentrism, white racism in the U.S. works by privileging white experiences, perspectives and understandings, by placing them at the center so that whiteness is the norm, the arbiter of truth, and forms the underlying values against which all others ( defined as non-white) are judged.
This dominance of white perspectives, values, worldviews, stories is structural, and is a defining feature not just of film we see, but of all mainstream cultural institutions in the U.S.
One feature of white privilege is that white people rarely recognize that the particularity of their perspective, or the existence of systemic structures which simultaneously give them access and authority and deny others access, authority and visibility. In White Privilege, UnPacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh, comments “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group”
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That whiteness is normative is the result of complex economic, political, social and cultural structures which all working together to make whiteness appear natural, universal and paradoxically invisible as a particular culturally located set of experiences and values.
Looking at the disparities in how Green Book and Roma were distributed and who actually got to see the film on the big screen is just one way of understanding how structural racism works. If only it ended there.
In Part 2, I will talk about the politics of identification and empathy within the two films’s narratives and how structural racism distorts the stories we tell ourselves about race and racism.