Last month, Green Book won Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards. The movie tells the based-on-a-true-story of Tony Lip, a white working-class bouncer from the Bronx, who is hired to drive world-class classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley on a tour of performances in the early-1960s Deep South. Shirley and Lip butt heads over their differences, encounter Jim Crow-era racism, and, ultimately, form an unlikely friendship. With period-perfect art direction and top-notch actors in Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, the movie is competently-crafted and performed fairly well at the box office.
Still, the movie has also been controversial for at least two reasons. First, many critics have pointed out that the movie paints a too simple account of racism and racial inequality and positions them as problem in a long ago past. New York Times movie critic Wesley Morris has called Green Book the latest in a long line of “racial reconciliation fantasy” films that have gone on to be honored at the Oscars.
But Green Book stands out for another reason. It’s an unlikely movie to win the Best Picture because, well, it’s just not very good.
Sociologists have long been interested in how Hollywood movies represent society and which types of movies the Academy does and doesn’t reward. Matthew Hughey, for example, has noted the overwhelming whiteness of Oscar award winners at the Oscars, despite the Oscars A2020 initiative aimed at improving the diversity of the Academy by 2020. But, as Maryann Erigha shows, the limited number of people of color winning at the Oscars reflects, in part, the broader under-representation and exclusion of people of color in Hollywood.
Apart from race, past research by Gabriel Rossman and Oliver Schilke has found that the Oscars tend to favor certain genres like dramas, period pieces, and movies about media workers (e.g., artists, journalists, musicians). Most winners are released in the final few months of the year and have actors or directors with multiple prior nominations. According to these considerations, Green Book had a lot going for it. Released during the holiday season, it is a historical movie about a musician, co-starring a prior Oscar winner and a prior multiple time Oscar nominee. Sounds like perfect Oscar bait.
And, yet, quality matters, too. It’s supposed to be the Best Picture after all. The problem is what makes a movie “good” is both socially-constructed and a matter of opinion. Most studies that examine questions related to movies measure quality using the average of film critics’ reviews. Sites like Metacritic compile these reviews and produce composite scores on a scale from 0 (the worst reviewed movie) to 100 (the best reviewed movie). Of course, critics’ preferences sometimes diverge from popular tastes (see: the ongoing box office success of the Transformers movies, despite being vigorously panned by critics). Still, movies with higher Metacritic scores tend to do better at the box office, holding all else constant.
If more critically-acclaimed movies do better at the box office, how does quality (or at least the average of critical opinion) translate into Academy Awards? It is certainly true that Oscar nominees tend to have higher Metacritic scores than the wider population of award-eligible movies. But the nominees are certainly not just a list of the most critically-acclaimed movies of the year. Among the films eligible for this year’s awards, movies like The Rider, Cold War, Eight Grade, The Death of Stalin, and even Paddington 2 all had higher Metacritic scores than most of the Best Picture nominees. So, while nominated movies tend to be better than most movies, they are not necessarily the “best” in the eyes of the critics.
Even among the nominees, it is not the case that the most critically-acclaimed movie always wins. In the plot below, I chart the range of Metacritic scores of the Oscars nominees since the Academy Awards reinvented the category in 2009 (by expanding the number of nominees and changing the voting method). The top of the golden area represents the highest-rated movie in the pool of nominees and the bottom represents the worst-rated film. The line captures the average of the pool of nominees and the dots point out each year’s winner.
As we can see, the most critically-acclaimed movie doesn’t always win, but the Best Picture is usually above the average of the pool of nominees. What makes Green Book really unusual as a Best Picture winner is that it’s well below the average of this year’s pool and the worst winner since 2009. Moreover, according to MetaCritic (and LA Times’ film critic Justin Chang), Green Book is the worst winner since Crash in 2005.
Green Book’s Best Picture win has led to some renewed calls to reconsider the Academy’s ranked choice voting system in which voters indicate the order of preferences rather than voting for a single movie. The irony is that when Moonlight, a highly critically-acclaimed movie with an all-black cast, won in 2016, that win was seen as a victory made possible by ranked choice voting. Now, in 2019, we have a racially-controversial and unusually weak Best Picture winner that took home the award because it appears to have been the “least disliked” movie in the pool.
The debate over ranked choice voting for the Academy Awards may ultimately end in further voting rule changes. Until then, we should regard a relatively weak movie like Green Book winning Best Picture as the exception to the rule.
Andrew M. Lindner is an Associate Professor at Skidmore College. His research interests include media sociology, political sociology, and sociology of sport.