Unpacking the hateful version of history at the 91st Academy Awards

Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

In 1915, Epoch Producing Co. released what is widely considered to be the first epic film, though there is some pushback against that, Birth of a Nation. In the film, after chronicling the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – in a way that made it clear there were very fine people on both sides – the film depicts the war’s aftermath as black men, played by white actors covered head-to-toe in shoe polish, descending upon the South as a swarm of amorous locusts to sake their uncontrollable lust by raping every white woman they could get their hands on. The only thing standing in their way are the women’s white saviors, the knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

The film pushed a version of history that was demonstrably untrue, even within living memory at the time, but a version that made white men more comfortable than to grapple honestly with the racism at the heart of the Civil War, or the film’s own making for that matter. This new version of history was so popular that the Klan, which had essentially fallen apart by the 1870s, was refounded in 1915 because of Birth of a Nation’s popularity and how romantically it portrayed the organization.

More than 100 years later in 2018, Focus Features released Black Klansman, the heavily exaggerated story of Ron Stallworth’s 1979 undercover investigation into the Klan, which involved Stallworth, a black man, eventually receiving a literal Klan membership card signed personally by Grand Wizard David Duke. The film ends by connecting the 1980s backwoods racists to the current U.S. president, who rose to power saying that Mexicans are invading en masse across the southern border to rape white women. It binds the present to history, a much less comfortable version of history than is usually promoted in our fiction.

Black Klansman wasn’t exactly a favorite to win Best Picture, but it’s no mistake that this film lost out to Green Book – which, full disclosure, I still have not seen – a movie that presents a version of history in which bad guys with white skin were routinely stopped by a good guy with white skin. This is the white savior narrative as it is traditionally recognized today.

It was pretty apparent in 2019 more than most years that, when you look behind the curtain, not even the voters really care about the Academy Awards. The brightest idea that’s been raised as to why the widely hated Green Book won Best Picture is that it benefited from a preferential ballot and most voters just didn’t think too hard about what they were doing. After years in which it seemed like the Academy just couldn’t do anything right, a feeling inflamed over the preceding months as more and worse decisions were announced to try and revitalize the ceremony’s viewership, and then immediately backtracked on, audience and industry alike developed an odd apathy toward the show and the entire crop of Best Picture nominees, and for the first time in years, a clear favorite failed to emerge.

The only two constants this season were the success of Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, the latter of which took home Best Picture and the former of which earned the plurality of Oscars on the night with a mere four – and it only got that many because Sound Design and Sound Mixing are still, for some reason, considered two separate categories – and the outrage that trailed the films, what would have seemed like a righteous angry mob in previous years, but in this pathetic season seemed only like a long stream of toilet paper gummed to Mahershala Ali’s gleaming right Oxford.

It’s probably inaccurate to frame the Academy as consciously doing anything at all – thinking of it as an organized body capable of any coordinated action seems impossible after the past months of outrageous missteps and immediate back-tracking.

But there is a clear version of history here that both of these films push. Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody are the 2019 faces of a long legacy of biopics throwing real human beings into the Hollywood chipping machine and spitting unimaginative, paint-by-numbers feel-good movies back out. Feel-good-and-straight-and-white movies. Movies that paint a deliberately different picture of recent history, in which stories about bad white men can only be told if they have good white men are at the fore, and in which straightness is the good and innocent path that helps you get to the office on time but gayness leads to death and despair.

“White Savior film” seems to have been coined in the ‘90s at the earliest, making it a fairly recent term, and it isn’t an absolute black mark for any film it’s applied to – something like The Last Samurai, for example, is very much a white savior narrative, but one in which the white protagonist is saved by the foreign culture he’s inducted into more than the other way around. Django Unchained is a classic, clear-cut white savior narrative, and most people are fine with it. It’s a trope to be used in discussion surrounding race in film, discussions that have always taken place. But when someone talks about a White Savior film, you know exactly what they mean.

White savior narratives and tropes, even less harmful or deliberately subverted ones, present a version of history that explores the plight of minorities, but keeps white protagonists squarely at the center of their conflicts. Even at their least harmful, they deny minority characters – almost always black characters in the American South – the agency that comes with being a protagonist. They are built on erasing the contributions of black people to their own emancipation and Civil Rights, instead focusing on the white people who helped. This erasure echoes the history of slavery and apartheid as it is taught to us as children, the erasure of black freedom fighters in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln and of Malcolm X and the Black Panther party in the shadow of Martin Luther King Jr.

Just as the white savior narrative presents a version of history designed to be more comfortable to white people, so do the narratives surrounding gay people who die present a version of history that was deliberately designed to make straight people more comfortable. Going all the way back to the Hays Code in the 1930s, in which the “sexual perversions” of homosexuality or bisexuality could be depicted, but the characters must be killed. That’s why “gay people that die” is a film trope – for decades, films were literally not allowed to portray LGBT people as even able to survive a film’s runtime, and even once the code was lifted in 1968, many filmmakers kept tightly to that particular norm.

That’s why for all the changes Bohemian Rhapsody makes to the story of Queen and to Freddie Mercury’s character in particular, the shifting of his AIDS diagnosis up two years, all the while pushing the international crisis itself to the background and steering well wide of its homosexist driving factors, is by far the most disturbing. The film goes far out of its way to portray Mercury not as bisexual, but as someone who struggled between heterosexuality and homosexuality, someone for whom heterosexuality meant a quiet family life and for whom homosexuality meant a perverse, vanity-driven ride through strange, interchangeable roadies, and then shifts his AIDS diagnosis back years so that it can function as his comeuppance, as his punishment for being gay, within the runtime.

Bohemian Rhapsody contorts itself like a Kia skydancer in order to stuff Queen into a bog standard band biopic, and that’s a horrifying disservice to Mercury in and of itself, but it contorts itself even further in order to fit in the same homosexist moralizing that has plagued American culture for almost a full century.

This is why I insist on recounting the real events movies are based on. It’s not because affects the quality of a given movie – it doesn’t remotely – it’s because for more than 100 years now, Hollywood has been a tool for straight white men to impose their mythology, their version of history, onto the public consciousness. The version of history in which the Ku Klux Klan actually wasn’t that bad. In which the underground network of support for black people in the South existed in the background, but really it was the good white people who fought off all the bad white people that were the only reason the south was habitable for black folks. Where there were fine people on both sides.

And AIDS Crisis? What AIDS Crisis? It certainly sucks that Freddie Mercury died – he was one of the good ones! – but there’s no reason to discuss what rampant systemic hatred of LGBT people has to do with his jealous guarding of his private life or his untimely death to what is now an extremely treatable disease.

We could easily list 2018 films more deserving of a place in history than these two, but that list would include almost everything released last year, and Oscars have long since lost any authority in that discussion anyhow. We could talk about how much these individual films hurt the people they were about, but those people have spoken quite well for themselves. We couldn’t hope to account for the more bizarre awards choices involved in this package.

But what we can do is keep a long memory. We can refuse to forget what really happened to Don Shirley, to Freddie Mercury, and keep our eyes locked on how those injustices continue to perpetuate. We can continue to educate ourselves on the parts of history that are being deliberately washed away.

 

 

 

***

All that said, we can’t really do anything about Bryan Singer.

When the Weinstein story dropped in 2017, I was skeptical that it would lead to meaningful change because that change would have to come from within the industry, and that industry seems to be completely comfortable with keeping known serial rapists in power.

Everyone already knew all about Weinstein, and everyone’s known all about Singer for years. The rumors of his misbehavior date all the way back to his career’s beginnings in the late ‘90s. Fuck, I’ve known about Singer for years now, it was just common knowledge.

Even after Cosby and Weinstein, it’s become more and more clear that we live in a world in which sexual assault is a perfectly acceptable thing, even from the most powerful people in the world, and I really don’t have any input for how to handle that.

But where cowards like Remi Malek and John Ottman sheepishly avoid even mentioning Singer’s name, we can at least not pretend he doesn’t exist.

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