In the opening monologue, 2019 Golden Globes co-host Sandra Oh joked about Crazy Rich Asians being “the first studio film with an Asian-American lead since Ghost in the Shell and Aloha." It instantly became one of the most memorable gags of the night, calling out recent instances of Hollywood whitewashing Asian characters. Jokes like that still sting, because it's rare for a film with a cast composed mostly of people of color to be nominated for major awards. But despite the 2019 Golden Globes nominating films such as Crazy Rich Asians, Black Panther, and BlacKkKlansman, the fact that they failed to secure any wins on Sunday night says a lot about the struggle of groundbreaking, inclusive films to achieve mainstream recognition.
The Marvel movie Black Panther, which features a mostly black ensemble and became the second-highest grossing flick of the year (first was Avengers: Infinity War, also featuring the Black Panther cast), didn’t get a win, despite securing three nominations, for Best Motion Picture - Drama, Best Song, and Best Score. Crazy Rich Asians was beat out for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy, and Best Actress, for star Constance Wu. That these two movies in particular left the Golden Globes empty-handed speaks volumes, warning of what’s potentially to come for the rest of the season.
Both Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther lost to controversial films in their two respective major categories. It was particularly staggering for many viewers to see Crazy Rich Asians lose to Green Book, a film that, despite being focused on black virtuoso Don Shirley, is told through the lens and from the perspective of a white man.
The biopic was written by protagonist Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga, who claimed in an interview with Screen Rant that he wrote it after speaking to Shirley prior to his death. But in an interview with Shadow and Act, members of Shirley's family claimed that the film contained plenty of inaccuracies, from his relationship with his family, to him and Tony Lip even being close friends in the first place.
Deadline reported that Mahershala Ali, who plays Shirley, directly apologized to Shirley's family. "I spoke to the studio and the family and at the end of the day you wish everyone was happy and you don’t want to offend anyone in any capacity,” said Ali backstage at the Golden Globes, after winning a trophy for his portrayal.
But costar Viggo Mortensen, who plays Lip, took a different approach, defending the film and its writer, Vallelonga, per Variety. "Nick Vallelonga has shown admirable restraint in the face of some accusations and some claims – including from a couple of family members – that have been unjustified, uncorroborated and basically unfair, that have been countered by other people who knew Doc Shirley well,” said Mortensen earlier this month.
If the family's claim is true, this means that the film’s purported intention of bringing awareness to racial issues and trying to educate audiences is obscured, as its based on narrative that praises its white protagonist for overcoming his racist tendencies, rather than giving a realistic glimpse at the obstacles Shirley faced in his prolific career. With all of this in mind, director Peter Farrelly's Golden Globes acceptance speech about overcoming differences didn't sit well with everyone watching at home.
Green Book’s win against Crazy Rich Asians (directed by John M. Chu and co-written by Adele Lim) sends the message that Hollywood might still not be ready to celebrate films made by and starring people of color, where they’re given agency to tell their own stories. And that’s something that Black Panther’s loss to Bohemian Rhapsody seems to suggest as well.
Much like Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody is a controversial choice for any major award. For starters, the film was initially directed by Bryan Singer, who has been accused of sexual abuse and misconduct, as reported by IndieWire. (He has denied all allegations.) The director was eventually fired and replaced with Dexter Fletcher partway through the project. Sources told The Hollywood Reporter that it was due to his erratic behavior. In a statement to the publication, Singer claimed that he had asked the studio for leave to visit a sick parent, but was denied, and that all reports of tension between him and star Rami Malek were "an exaggeration of a few creative differences that were quickly resolved." He is still credited as the film's director, though Singer was not at the Golden Globes and was not thanked by anyone in the Bohemian Rhapsody camp.
But another major issue with the biopic is how Freddie Mercury’s story was told. Many facts were changed for the narrative, including the timeline of Mercury's AIDS diagnosis and why and when he went solo. Bohemian Rhapsody also leaves out many important aspects of his identity, including a deeper exploration of his Indian Parsi roots, which are only mentioned in passing.
Los Angeles Times noted how Bohemian Rhapsody missed the opportunity to delve deeper into Mercury’s ethnicity and what it meant to have an Indian man become one of the biggest rock icons. “And what about Mercury’s ethnicity and faith? Where did this enigmatic artist come from? Who are the people who raised him? And did he change his name because he was ashamed of his roots, as the aforementioned scene suggests? While largely missing from Bohemian Rhapsody, those facets of his life are thoroughly captured in multiple biographies,” wrote LA Times writer Ashley Lee.
Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler and written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, wasn’t the only film made by and starring people of color to lose to Bohemian Rhapsody, either. Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman also lost in the same category. BlacKkKlansman was nominated for four awards, yet lost all of them. And If Beale Street Could Talk took one of the two awards given to women of color on Sunday night, with star Regina King winning Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in any Motion Picture. It was well-deserved, and showed some momentum for Beale Street, but that win also highlighted the lack of people of color taking the stage to claim awards.
It’s a big achievement to have so many films helmed by people of color be nominated for Golden Globes, and potentially also receive Academy Award nominations. But being nominated is not enough if most winners are still white. It’s time for Hollywood to properly recognize how important it is for people of color to have a part in telling their own stories and changing the industry, since their success has already proven that fans crave stories they can identify with.