Oscar’s Crimes – Part 2: 1989
All Points Bulletin:
Be on the lookout for a small, bald, gold man. He is 13 and 1/2 inches tall, weighs 8.5 lbs, sexual organs seem to be absent, tends to stand very still, constantly wielding a crusader’s sword, and is made of gold plated britannium on a black metal base. He is wanted for a list of crimes against the art of film that spans over 83 years. Consider him to be armed and dangerous.
In this second installment of Oscar crimes, we dial the wayback machine to 1989. That year was particularly notable for for two awards that snubbed notable films in the nominating stages:
Best Picture of 1989
The film that won Best Picture for 1989 was Driving Miss Daisy. Rarely has there been a bigger misfire for an award in the modern history of the Oscars.
This little character drama, directed by Bruce Beresford, starred a great couple of actors, Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. It’s set during the civil rights struggle in the south, and focuses on the warm relationship between an old woman and her humble African American chauffeur. Based on a play by Alfred Uhry, it is actually a good film. But it met with a LOT of controversy at the time. The overly polite nature of Freeman’s chauffeur character was seen as playing an Uncle Tom. Many critics and minority audience members perceived it as too polite, and glossing over a legitimate struggle for equal rights that was given short shrift. Some critics felt that the screenplay treated racism as a mildly rude and inconvenient thing. They also felt that the movie treats the chauffeur character as having made a legitimate career choice instead of doing some of the only service level work available to him at the time. Basically, the complaint is that it’s a black man kissing an elderly white woman’s ass for two hours. Also, a movie that is supposed to be about overcoming racial differences focuses on the white character.
I agree with and can concede a number of these points. However, taken on its own modest terms, this is a very good film. As a small story of relationships, it is subtle and affecting. Dan Aykroyd shows up in his Oscar-nominated supporting role in one of the last few times he was worth watching in a movie (his heartbreaking decline in movie quality control is a topic for another day). Both Freeman and Tandy are excellent. So, I think sometimes this movie gets overly maligned.
But—and it’s a big but—this was not Best Picture material. Acting awards, maybe you can make that case, but not Picture. And I would say that even if it had come out in a different year. However, its undeserving award was strongly counterpointed by the fact that the single most challenging and artistic movie of 1989 not only didn’t win, it wasn’t even nominated. I’m talking, of course, about Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.
Directed, written, and starring Lee, the story of one hot summer day in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in New York, and the interracial hostilities bubbling under the surface in all strata of society, was the most talked about film of the year. It was challenging, exciting, entertaining, and incredibly watchable. Audiences were made to feel uncomfortable (in a good, thoughtful way) by the story on screen. It sparked discussion, made everyone address the topic of racism in modern terms, and really is Spike Lee’s masterpiece. The memorable opening credits, powered by Public Enemy’s Fight The Powers That Be, announced that this movie was going to get in your face. The volatile and ambiguous ending got people provoked. And the movie that happened in between is terrifically watchable.
I know that Spike Lee has become a polarizing figure. Some might feel he has become a caricature of himself. I find him still to be interesting and relevant, but no matter what you feel about him, there is no denying that Do The Right Thing still packs a visceral punch.
The black community found the awarding of Driving Miss Daisy the Best Picture while Spike was completely snubbed to be racially insulting, and I think rightfully so. For instance, if the award was given to another of the actual nominees that year—say Field Of Dreams, or My Left Foot—there could have at least been a “legitimate” argument to be made by the Academy that they were picking a film that they saw as artistically the best. But the gold statue just had to go to the one nominee that featured racial issues, but in a totally non-threatening to white people way. And to do that in the same year that a movie that really shook white audiences up wasn’t even invited to the party is what elevates this snub to the level of Oscar crime.