A Complicated Response to a Complicated Awards Contender
DIRECTOR: PETER FARRELLY/2018
At this point in awards season—I’m sorry, Awards Season—it’s difficult to watch any contender with objectivity. Even if you skip reviews, it’s impossible to miss the headlines, tweets, and hot takes surrounding the movies frequenting the academy, guild, critical, et al. ceremonies for the best screen work of the year. Such is my conundrum with Green Book, whose three Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Award, and more than 120 additional wins and nominations from outlets of varying prestige have made sure to keep it at the top of my newsfeed. Its $50 million gross and PR panic attacks have kept it top of mind in Facebook groups, at family Christmases, and around other proverbial water coolers.
Green Book tells the based-on-true-events story of Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a working class Italian-American out of a job. To pay the rent, he takes a gig driving for the black pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on his two-month concert tour of the South and Midwest. In 1962, that’s not an invitation for conflict as much as a guarantee, and not just because of the laws and customs dictating racial segregation and hierarchy in the Deep South. Dr. Shirley’s prodigious talent and cultured tastes clash with Tony’s cacophonous Bronx accent and uncouth table manners, as well as his subtler brand of racism.
The plot of Green Book functions like an inverse Driving Miss Daisy, and in some ways, it’s an improvement. The 1989 Best Picture winner stayed firmly in Miss Daisy’s world, which didn’t leave room to develop Morgan Freeman’s Hoke. While Miss Daisy’s character growth may have been moving, the film suffered from Hoke’s lack of interiority and individuality.
As it’s not too much to ask for two characters to arc in two hours, Green Book makes for a refreshing update. Race and class impact every part of our leads’ relationships, but their differences stem from everything as major as how they handle conflict to as small as their eating habits. The pair plays up their Odd Couple chemistry, finding both the humor and the pathos. Because the script is more clearly structured than Miss Daisy, Tony and Dr. Shirley are well-defined enough to each drive the story. We can thank Mortensen and Ali for that, as both of their performances feel fresh from their best-known screen credits.
Knowing all this, it’s difficult to judge Green Book tabula rasa. How much can you vary from fact before your changes leave the realm of good faith?
Otherwise the film’s setting and plot are familiar to anyone who’s seen a movie related to the American Civil Rights Movement, and it’s not difficult to predict where their character arcs are going as soon as the film begins. Green Book even bears a faint resemblance to fellow Best Picture nominee BlacKkKlansman, which follows a developing friendship between a black man and a white man in the 1970s. But where Spike Lee’s based-on-a-true-story film favors the bold and brash, this story stays feel-good. No, it doesn’t let Tony off the hook for his racist assumptions and what we would today call micro-aggressions (another improvement from Driving Miss Daisy, which focused more on explicit Southern ordinances and traditions). But with a resolution wrapped in a bow ready to be placed under the Christmas tree, it doesn’t feel out of step with the idea I’d been given in grade school that except for outliers like the KKK, we’d pretty much conquered racism by the 1980s. If anything, it’s too neat and tidy, with a gloss coating a story that feels very past tense.
And this is where my Death of the Author take on this film weakens. If there’s anything I feel under-qualified to write about in 2019, it’s race relations, especially because plenty of people have done a better job than I can writing about how the film handles it. (More on that in a bit.) That said, I couldn’t help but notice how this film addressed the issues differently from how BlacKkKlansman and should-have-been-Best-Picture-nominee If Beale Street Could Talk did. When Tony and Dr. Shirley’s story comes to an end, we feel like we’ve found an answer to a question and see a changed future for both characters. The other two films end their stories in more complicated contexts with work still to be done. I’m sure you know which feels more honest.
Then there’s the drama outside of the script plaguing the film. Tacky, boneheaded, and worse moments have been making headlines along the press tour for months, which means Green Book’s publicity team has had more headaches than they probably anticipated for a film marketed as ideal for a family Thanksgiving outing. Another Best Picture nominee, Bohemian Rhapsody, has faced questions about its historical accuracy, but to my knowledge, Rami Malek hasn’t apologized to Freddie Mercury’s family for starring in a movie they called “a symphony of lies” as Ali did for Shirley’s family. Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son and one of the writers of the film, calls their take a “misunderstanding.”
Knowing all this, it’s difficult to judge Green Book tabula rasa. How much can you vary from fact before your changes leave the realm of good faith? How closely can you compare films of different genres before it becomes unfair to the different storytelling styles? How much can you separate the art from the artist before you’re turning a blind eye to sin?
I don’t have definitive answers to those questions in general, much less for Green Book. Yes, the movie stands out in an odd Awards Season for its bad press, but also for performances that stand out from the pack of a bleak year. (No matter your opinion on the film as a whole, it’s difficult to argue with Mortensen and Ali’s nominations.) Yes, we need room for family-friendlier films that tackle tough topics and moments in history, but it’s fair if this isn’t the one you want. My hope is that Green Book, an enjoyable film on its own, will find a way to become a net-positive in this conversation even with its controversy, especially since several of the kerfuffles have had little to do with the content of the movie.
One way to help create a net-positive conversation is to join with a take beyond, “Oh, I heard that film was actually racist,” an assertion I’ve heard in various forms the last few years (including from myself, I’m sorry to say). Since the repeating of hearsay opinions with little research doesn’t help anyone, these reviews, features, and news about the topics surrounding Green Book are a great place to start.
- “Mahershala Ali Apologized to His Green Book Character’s Family After Controversy,” Vulture (Dec. 17, 2018)
- “Green Book Writer Defends Film After Family Backlash: Don Shirley ‘Approved What I Put In,’” Variety (Jan. 9, 2019)
- A rundown of many of the controversies following Green Book along its Awards Season campaign, The Daily Beast (Jan. 10, 2019)
- “Why do the Oscars Keep Falling for Racial Reconciliation Fantasies?” The New York Times (Jan. 23, 2019)
- “Personal Stories Behind the ‘Green Book,’” letters to the editor of The New York Times (Jan. 31, 2019)