‘Green Book’ Deserves Spike  Lee’s Righteous Anger (Guest Column)

Written by on February 27, 2019

Why is Spike Lee so angry? It took me a long time to come to terms with the answer to this anger. It wasn’t until Green Book won the best picture Oscar on Feb.  24 that I fully understood, because I felt it too. I was angry.

As a young, black student of film coming of age in the 21st century, I always counted Lee’s career as part of my cinematic language. If you grow up black and interested in film, he’s the first name family members will throw out at you. While recognizing his impact, I never quite appreciated his voice.

Even as I became further acquainted with his filmography, I was puzzled by how dissatisfied the filmmaker so often seemed in photos and interviews. Lee always struck me as hot-tempered, reactionary and perhaps even arrogant in his inflammatory comments about other filmmakers and race relations. He was a Hollywood outsider and a filmmaker for my parents’ generation, part of the past and not of a present I foolishly believed had moved beyond a need for his anger. Lee was part of my studies but never a part of my soul.

I was a teenager the first time I saw Do the Right Thing. Barack Obama was president, and I didn’t care for the film. The ending, in which Sal’s pizzeria is burned to the ground in retaliation for Radio Raheem’s death, struck me as a moment of misplaced anger. I didn’t see how Sal and his sons, racist as they were, deserved to be punished for Raheem’s death, which was the fault of a police officer. This act didn’t sync up with my views of progress and passive resistance, and not even the thematic handshake of MLK and Malcolm X quotes at the end could remedy that.

I didn’t watch the film again until 2016 — election year. That time, it clicked. I realized that the film was fighting against the institutions and values that abetted each other. I understood that anger, despite being ugly, could be righteous. And my consideration of Lee began to change. I could see the scope of his anger, and the reason behind the flames.

When Green Book won best picture, Lee, who had won his first competitive Oscar less than an hour earlier for best adapted screenplay, got up from his seat and tried to exit the room. The reason for his anger was clear to me. It wasn’t arrogance or bad sportsmanship. It was an awareness of how little Hollywood has changed in the 29 years since Driving Miss Daisy won best picture and Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated for it. It was an awareness that the same inclination that drives our entertainment also drives our politics, and that once again progress was rejected for cheap platitudes with smacks of a desperate bid to be great again.

Throughout awards season we’ve heard both critics and Academy voters discuss the merits of Green Book as a film that tells a classic Hollywood story that feels good and old-fashioned. It’s a depiction of a past that never existed, in which racism can be cured by watching a successful black person suffer.

In a year when BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther were nominated for best picture, and were recognized as films about black people and our lives in this moment, the Academy decided instead to recognize a film that commandeers the title of Victor Hugo Green’s African-American guidebook and centers on a racist caricature who is allowed to change through the suffering of pianist Don Shirley, a black man who lived a life that should have never been relegated to a supporting role as Mahershala Ali was.

Green Book is a Band-Aid film, covering up an open wound in need of stitches, while Lee’s BlacKkKlansman forces us to look closely at America’s racial wound and provides a means through which we can begin to heal it, though recognizing there is no easy fix and the wound will still leave a scar on our country’s history. Green Book is a step back for the Academy Awards and a reminder that despite our ability to be honored as winners, black stories still make us outsiders. Until the institutions in place are changed, metaphorically burned down with our righteous anger, we’ll remain so.

Richard Newby is a writer who covers film, comics, pop culture and how they shape the world today.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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