Race to the bottom: Throwing the book at ‘Green Book’
Jim Crow-era film won best picture at the Oscars, yet there are so many things wrong with it, it’s not funny
Is it even awards season without one of the frontrunning films causing so much controversy that by the time the ceremonies roll around they’ve lost all hope of success? In the era of #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo – no, no it isn’t.
After the La La Land backlash (which included accusations of jazz mansplaining by Ryan Gosling) of 2017 and the racism-misogyny nightmare of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, comes Green Book, which, in spite of offering a heady combination of most of the crimes committed by its forefathers, still managed to win best picture.
Green Book dramatises a real tour of the US Deep South undertaken by Don Shirley, a black concert pianist, in the 1960s. The title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide that was created to help black Americans safely navigate the country in the era of the Jim Crow laws.
It also added three Oscars to its awards season haul on Sunday, for best picture, best original screenplay and best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali. But the film has also been dogged by all manner of outcries. Here are some of them.
While everybody knows that films “based on a true story” tend to use a smattering of artistic licence, it helps if those who remember what actually took place are on board. For Green Book, they’re very much not.
The film’s main screenwriter, Nick Vallelonga, based the film on the experiences of his father Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, an Italian-American bouncer who drove Shirley around the Deep South and, we are led to believe, became a firm friend along the way. The younger Vallelonga worked with writer and producer Brian Currie. Both men insist that the events depicted were exactly as they happened.
However, while they used plenty of information from Lip, including tapes of the man speaking about his experiences, less was used to flesh out Shirley’s side of the story. Viggo Mortensen, who plays Lip, was invited to eat with Vallelonga’s family and watch a video of Lip. Ali, however, says he “just pulled and gathered whatever I could”.
While Vallelonga has said he interviewed Shirley before making the film, much of the depiction of the pianist is based on the impressions his father gave of his employer. Upon the release of the film, Shirley’s family dismissed many of Lip’s “true stories” that Vallelonga has based his screenplay on. Shirley’s car wasn’t a teal blue Cadillac, but a black limousine. Shirley had eaten fried chicken before, and if he hadn’t, his brother Maurice said, he never would have let a white man encourage him to try it.
More seriously, Maurice said that Shirley was never estranged from his family – as the film attests. In fact, he was best man at Maurice’s wedding in 1964. The most difficult un-truth? Shirley and Lip were never friends. Lip, Maurice wrote, “was an employee, his chauffeur (who resented wearing a uniform and cap). This is why context and nuance are so important. The fact that a successful, well-to-do black artist would employ domestics that did NOT look like him, should not be lost in translation.”
Vallelonga responded, saying that Shirley was aware of what he had put into the film (the musician died in 2013) but told him not to speak to his family about it. “Don Shirley himself told me not to speak to anyone. And he only wanted certain parts of his life. He only allowed me to tell what happened on the trip. Since [the family] were not on the trip – this is right out of his mouth – he said: ‘No one else was there but your father and I. We’ve told you.’ And he approved what I put in and didn’t put in.”
Ali was moved to apologise to Shirley’s nephew, Edwin Shirley III, saying that he “did the best I could with the material I had”, but had not been made aware that there were “close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character”.
Some could argue that the movie’s factual basis comes down to the claims of one man (the late Tony Lip) against another (Shirley’s only living brother Maurice). But the fact that Vallelonga, a white man, is making a film expressly about race relations during a painful part of US social history makes him more complicit in his portrayal of Shirley. He certainly should have checked the facts of Shirley’s story as closely has he did his father’s.
Vallelonga then failed to thank Shirley in his speech
To add fuel to the fire swiftly raging around the Dolby Theatre when Green Book was announced as the surprise winner of Best Picture, Vallelonga didn’t include Don Shirley, the man who had inspired the entire film, in his speech.
When he was asked about the oversight backstage, Vallelonga rather dodged the question, instead repeating his claim that Shirley had asked to be kept removed from his family: “You get nervous up there,” he said. “Don Shirley, obviously we all thanked Mahershala, gave him a great thank you. If you’re discussing the Don Shirley family thing, it falls on me, but Don Shirley himself told me to not speak to anyone. He told me the story that he wanted to tell, he protected his private life and all the other things about him. He told me: ‘If you’re going to tell the story, tell it from your father, me, no one else, don’t speak to anyone else, that’s how you have to make it.’ And also he told me: ‘Don’t make it until I pass away’.”
He continued: “So I just kept my word to that man. I wish I could have reached out to Don Shirley’s family. I didn’t even know they really existed until we were making the film. We contacted his estate for his music, and then the filmmakers, we invited them all to screenings and discussions. I personally was not allowed to speak to his family, per Don Shirley’s wishes. I’m an Italian from New York, they call that a stand-up guy, I kept my word to the man, and that’s the reason for that.”
Nick Vallelonga sent anti-Muslim tweets
Vallelonga deleted his Twitter account after a 2015 upload saw him agreeing with Donald Trump over a long-debunked conspiracy narrative that Muslims celebrated 9/11.
In a rally in November 2015, Trump claimed that “thousands and thousands of people were cheering” as the World Trade Centre fell. When he was challenged, Trump insisted that he had seen Muslims celebrating. At the time, Vallelonga tweeted the now-president, saying: “100% correct. Muslims in Jersey City cheering when towers went down. I saw it, as you did, possibly on local CBS news.”
While supporting such factual inaccuracies is problematic for a man who is already defending the amount of truth in his “true story” film, Vallelonga’s anti-Muslim sentiment is particularly awkward given that his star, Ali, is a Muslim man. Days later, Vallelonga issued an apology to Vanity Fair.
The director has apologised for flashing his actors
Along with his brother Bobby, Peter Farrelly made a name for directing some of the biggest goofball comedies of the 1990s: Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, the particularly tone-deaf Shallow Hal.
While still a comedy, Green Book marks somewhat of a departure. For one, there are not any plot devices that include a woman using semen for hair gel. Furthermore, the serious historical context of the film shows something of a graduation for Farrelly.
That hasn’t stopped skeletons being unearthed from Farrelly’s wardrobe, however. Namely, that he used to flash his penis on set and during professional conversations in an attempt to get laughs.
The incident happened enough to be reported in profile interviews regularly in the late 1990s. In one of them, Farrelly estimated that he had done it “easily 500 times” to colleagues including Cameron Diaz and Fox executive Tom Rothman.
As a 1998 Observer article details: “Apparently, I say nervously, Peter showed Cameron his penis during the filming … Peter interrupts, horrified: ‘No. We did it before she was in.’ So you risked losing a big star by showing her your penis before she was on board? Peter smiles at my foolishness. ‘Of course! That’s what got her in.’ He stops smiling for a moment. ‘It’s a joke,’ he explains patiently.”
Farrelly has apologised for his actions since the reports came to light. “True. I was an idiot,” he commented through his representative. “I did this decades ago and I thought I was being funny and the truth is I’m embarrassed and it makes me cringe now. I’m deeply sorry.”
Its star used the n-word while talking about the film
Astonishing, but true. Viggo Mortensen, who has already racked up a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Bafta nomination for his performance as Lip, was talking about race relations during a post-screening discussion and said the n-word in its entirety.
“For instance, no one says nigger anymore,” Mortensen said. Dick W Schulz, a journalist who was in attendance, tweeted that “the oxygen immediately left the room”.
Mortensen apologised. In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, he said: “In making the point that many people casually used the n- word at the time in which the movie’s story takes place, in 1962, I used the full word. Although my intention was to speak strongly against racism, I have no right to even imagine the hurt that is caused by hearing that word in any context, especially from a white man. I do not use the word in private or in public. I am very sorry that I did use the full word last night, and will not utter it again."
Mortensen’s co-star Ali said in a statement that he accepted Mortensen’s apology, but emphasised the pain he had caused: “However well-intended or intellectual the conversation may have been, it wasn’t appropriate for Viggo to say the n-word. An excellent and poignant thought was unfortunately overshadowed by voicing the word in its fullness. Which for me, is always hurtful.”
It barely mentions the actual Green Book
The Green Book is an object with enough fascinating and tragic history to warrant a film in itself. Between 1937 and 1966, the New York mail carrier Victor Hugo Green published a list of the restaurants, shops, hotels and “tourist homes” (places that would accommodate black people when hotels wouldn’t) that would welcome black travellers.
It also listed “sundown towns”, which had laws against black people being on the road at night. That the book had to exist is a symbol of the deep race-related problems in US society that still resonate today – and a sadness that even its creator was aware of.
And yet, the film doesn’t address this history. In fact, Shirley and Vallelonga don’t even discuss the book’s existence. Critics have pointed out that by naming the film after the Green Book but not explaining its significance, the film’s creators have fallen into that all-too familiar Hollywood trap: of picking bits of socially unjust history that suit them, without outlining the full context. As Candace Frederick's review for Slashfilm explains: “A seminal item in black history is trivialised and hijacked by a white man who has zero reverence for it, and because of that, the audience is given no reason to have any either.”
It made the Oscars voting academy yet more out of touch
Has Green Book’s victory the biggest upset of the Oscars? There’s a good chance. In the press room, people were literally falling off their chairs in horror and outrage. In the main auditorium of the Dolby Theatre, Spike Lee attempted to walk out in protest, but was stopped by staffers at the door and escorted back to his seat. Later, in the press room, Lee was more vocal on the best picture winner, recalling the time that his film, Do the Right Thing, lost out during the 1990 Oscars to Driving Miss Daisy, which has been called as similarly tone-deaf as Green Book.
“I’m snakebit,” Lee said. “I mean every time somebody's driving somebody, I lose. But they changed the seating arrangement!” While Lee refused to answer questions on the specific success of Green Book, he closed by speaking for his own film, BlacKkKlansman, which won best adapted screenplay: “Whether we won best picture or not, this film will stand the test of time being on the right side of history.”
– © The Daily Telegraph