Peter Farrelly’s biographical comedy Green Book is up for five Oscars but remains one of the awards season’s most controversial movies. The upcoming 2019 Academy Awards features a mixed bag of nominees. There are some positives: Marvel broke the superhero ceiling and saw Black Panther become a Best Picture nominee; the legendary Spike Lee finally landed his first Best Director nomination for BlacKkKlansman, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma remains the front-runner in spite of its Netflix status. But then there’s the Bohemian Rhapsody problem, as well as the absence of female directors, once more. At the heart of this hurricane is a small movie called Green Book.
Before Green Book premiered at TIFF, critics didn’t have high hopes for it. It was, after all, the first “serious” movie of Farrelly, the guy who made Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, and followed a true story - a white driver accompanying a legendary black jazz pianist through a tour of the American south - that immediately inspired comparisons to Driving Miss Daisy. Then it screened to major critical acclaim and took home the coveted Audience Award, thus catapulting it to the front of the Best Picture Oscar race. That position seemed secure when it took home the 2019 Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical and the Producers Guild of America Award. On top of that, Mahershala Ali seemed all but destined to win his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Green Book has made a decent amount of money - $61.4 million from a $23 million budget - and has its fair share of critical fans. It’s nowhere near the most critically lambasted film of 2018, or even the worst reviewed Best Picture nominee (an honor that falls upon Bohemian Rhapsody). Still, it would be foolish to understand this film and the conversations around it solely by reviews, especially those that come from the first flush of festival excitement. Green Book may seem like a pretty benign film on its own, but it still remains a potent symbol of Hollywood’s problems and how far they still have to go on many issues.
- This Page: Green Book's Inaccurate Story
- Next Page: Green Book's Controversial Crew & Being Out Of Date
The Accuracy of Green Book’s Story Has Been Questioned Repeatedly
The issue of biopics and their adherence to historical truth has been a problem for as long as the genre has existed. It’s an ethical quandary that questions if creative freedom can come at the price of re-imagining truth. Many filmmakers and studios wrestle with this topic and how involved any surviving family members should be in the making of the story. Green Book is not the first film to face this problem – once again, Bohemian Rhapsody has been under the same magnifying glass of scrutiny this awards season – but its particular methods of dealing with this have raised further eyebrows and been called out as insensitive by the family of one of the portrayed subjects.
Green Book is the passion project of Nick Vallelonga. His father, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), was the man who was seemingly friends with pianist Don Shirley (Ali) and accompanied him to safety through a tour of the still-segregated American South. Vallelonga co-wrote the screenplay, along with Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie, and is also credited as a producer. Family involvement in a biopic is not uncommon, although it's less heard of for the project itself to be the creative brain-child of one of the subject’s offspring. This opened up various questions about the validity of Vallelonga’s version of events and his agenda. In a story about a famed black musician with its title taken from The Negro Motorist Green Book, why was this story centered on the white guy? These problems were growing long before Shirley’s family called out what they felt was misrepresentation of history and their relative.
Shirley’s nephew Edwin Shirley III, among other family members, has condemned Green Book's interpretation of Shirley as "a symphony of lies" (via Shadow and Act). Particular moments in the film refuted by Shirley's family include the claims that Shirley was estranged from his relatives at the time, that Lip and Shirley were ever friends to begin with, and that a now infamous scene where Lip introduces Shirley to fried chicken never happened. Edwin Shirley also claimed that his uncle had never wanted a film made about his life (Vallelonga claims he sought permission from Shirley before writing the script).
Furthermore, Ali's statement that he wasn't aware Shirley's relatives were still living and that he could've consulted with them prior to filming has caused further complications with the veracity of Vallelonga and Farrelly's claims about Shirley's life. And with Farrelly expressing a similar sentiment to Ali, it’s bad optics for this biopic about two men to be described as a completely true story by the family of one of the (white) subjects while the other relatives of the black subject fully deny that. Given Hollywood’s long-favored penchant for telling stories of race relations through a white gaze (the Driving Miss Daisy comparisons exist for a reason), Green Book needed to do a lot more to avoid those pitfalls if it wanted to remain a story written and directed by white men. In 2019, those questions are louder than ever, and Green Book doesn’t answer them.