Hollywood’s Green Book Problem

As a movie, Best Picture winner Green Book was fine, I guess. It’s certainly worth seeing for the performances of Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in the lead roles, but the fact that Mortensen was considered the lead actor while Ali was the supporting actor is a clue to why this movie is problematic.

For those not in the know, Green Book tells the story of real-life concert pianist Don Shirley (Ali) on a concert tour through the Deep South in 1962. As an African-American man traveling through the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s, Shirley hires Copacabana bouncer Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen) as a driver and bodyguard. Along the way, they learn things about each other and about themselves. Frank learns that racism is bad, and everyone hugs at the end.

The Green Book of the title was a guide for black Americans traveling through the South, letting them know where it was safe to stay. It is certainly a fascinating topic for a film that film really wanted to dive into the subject. Sadly, I think that film is still waiting to be made. This movie mostly glosses over the reality of the Green Book, using it as a throwaway prop more than an essential part of the story.

This movie’s problems probably started when Hollywood, in its infinite capacity for tone-deafness, decided to make a movie about a black musician traveling through the Deep South of the Jim Crow era, and made the “radical” choice to tell that story from the perspective of the white guy in the car. Yes, I’m being sarcastic. Proving there’s no problem that Hollywood can’t make worse, they made the even more “radical” decision to hire Peter Farrelly, the white guy who directed There’s Something About Mary, to helm the project.

In the film, Shirley is estranged from his brother. In reality, according to Shirley’s family, they were not estranged. In the film, Shirley and Vallelonga become lifelong friends. In real life, maybe not so much. I realize that it’s common movie practice to fictionalize some aspects of a film story to create drama, but that gets dicey where you’re dealing with real people who have living relatives. I doubt Don Shirley’s brother consented to the way he is portrayed in the film. Dragging a real person into your story, but completely fabricating their role in a negative light is not cool at all.

Nick Vallelonga, Frank’s son, insists that Don Shirley told him not to contact his family when telling the story. First, it’s very convenient that Shirley isn’t around to verify this, but even if this is true, it’s a lame excuse. As soon as the story wandered into Shirley’s relationship with his brother, the filmmakers had an obligation to involve the family. The further claim that Vallelonga and others “didn’t know” that Shirley had any close living relatives is equally feeble. They didn’t have access to Google? A minimal amount of research could have cleared up that misunderstanding. Don Shirley’s family wasn’t involved because the filmmakers didn’t even make a token effort, and the only reason you don’t put in even the slightest effort is that you don’t care. I’d have more respect for Farrelly, Vallelonga, and crew if they just admitted this was the case.

Overinflating Shirley and Vallelonga’s friendship is more understandable in a film like this, as it is conventionally seen as necessary to make an interesting movie. At least it does no real harm, unlike the thing with the brother, although a film where they don’t become friends at the end would be more daring and unconventional.

Personally, I don’t think anyone involved in Green Book had any bad intentions. Everything about the movie is so earnest that it just screams “traditionally well-intentioned Oscar bait.” Unfortunately, “well-intentioned” is the cinematic equivalent of “I guess it’s the thought that counts.”

I certainly don’t blame director Peter Farrelly for wanting to break out of the “Ben Stiller’s Jism in Cameron Diaz’s Hair” school of comedy, and into something more substantive, but Green Book has all the symptoms of trying too hard to be taken seriously. Just a little extra bit of self-awareness might have told Farrelly that, if he wanted to learn a new dance, it was probably best not to learn that dance in the minefield of America’s racial narrative.

Hollywood enables this sort of behavior a little too often. For all the recent moves toward more diversity, the film industry is still a mostly white and cloistered community, and a little too comfortable with congratulating itself for its very conservative brand of liberalism. Yes, Hollywood, you’ve figured out that racism is bad, but you’d already had that revelation when Sidney Poitier was a young man. You can’t keep returning to the same well as In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and act like you’re still moving the conversation forward.

There was a great movie to be made in Green Book, a movie where Don Shirley is the main character, we see the Jim Crow South through his eyes, and we learn something about the real Green Book. Maybe that film would have genuinely deserved the Best Picture Oscar.

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