Sunday’s announcement of “Green Book” as 2018’s Best Picture winner at the Oscars led to some drama.
Director Spike Lee -- who had won previously that night for “BlacKkKlansman’s” screenplay -- reportedly bolted from his chair and stormed to the back of the auditorium. Additionally one of the producers on Lee’s film, Jordan Peele, was also visibly dismayed.
These reactions reflect a growing sentiment in some sectors of the entertainment industry that “Green Book” reflects some of the worst racial impressions in their business. It was a largely white production, and the star of the film is white, despite the supporting character being a noted musical figure of color.
Opinion: This is the real reason why Green Book had to win Best Picture at the Oscars https://t.co/N85dGcggOa
— The Independent (@Independent) February 25, 2019
There are also accusations that many racist tropes are seen in the film, such as the white character going through a dose of social redemption. Also charged is one of the deepest cinematic transgressions, the white portrayal acting as the savior figure for the person of color (POC) character.
These are joined in with complaints of historical accuracy and the proper representation of the main African American player. Soon you have a film that is just choked full of toxic problematics.
“Green Book” shows that despite attempts to broaden the racial scope of Hollywood there are pitfalls to encounter. It seems almost as if each attempted step towards progress is being taken in a societal minefield.
Color Blindness Through a Purity Test
If unfamiliar with the movie, the story concerns the real-life musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a master pianist who embarks on a tour of the American South in the early 1960s. For the trip he hires a thuggish Italian doorman named Anthony Villelonga (Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen).
Dubbed Tony Lip, Mortensen’s character serves as his driver and valet. Tony is a cloistered racist but his tough guy persona serves the needs of Shirley, and over the course of the trip the two manage to bond and learn to grow past racial prejudices.
Despite the call by many that Hollywood address race more consistently and broaden movies and roles to be more racially inclusive, here is a movie seemingly doing just that. Yet it leads to many of the same type of complaints.
Ahead of the Oscars ceremony entertainment HiT editor Christian Toto noted some of the blowback the film was receiving. “Could it be that some people don’t want racial progress?”
It is a valid question.
Shut Up, They Said
The criticisms hurled at “Green Book” do not seem designed to open up debate as they do to shut down the thought this is a helpful step. Yes, historical inaccuracies will occur in a dramatic feature — that has been the case from the time of silent films. But to dismiss the film as outright racial agitprop, because it was crafted by white screenwriters ignores some basics.
Carol Shirley Kimble -- one of Don Shirley’s surviving nieces -- took issue with how the musician appears in the film. “To depict him and take away from him and make the story about a hero of a white man for this incredibly accomplished black man is insulting, at best,” she said.
On the surface it may seem incongruous that this particular film highlight the experience not of a virtuoso who was an important musical historic namee, but that of a man could accurately described as a “stunted mook,” there is solid cause for this framing. One of those script writers was Nick Vallelonga, the son of the main character, who based his script directly upon the experiences of his father.
While this does explain to a degree the dramatic angle of the story it does introduce numerous valid questions regarding the portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley. You are, after all, having the character of a black individual in the segregated era of the early ’60s being represented by white writers. Of possibly larger concern, these experiences are based on the telling of events by a man who, at least at the time, was an avowed racist.
It is more than fair to suggest his impressions are skewed, or possibly worse.
Wait … How Many Saviors Does ‘Green Book’ Have?
Yet some of the harshest criticisms of the plot are decidedly one-sided. In stating this is caucasian-savior story -- that Tony is, quite literally, a “white knight” for a black character -- ignores any benefits his character experienced in growing from his tight racist mindset. Also noted as a problem are the scenes where Tony Lip is shown broadening the experiences of his employer.
Of particular concern for the racial critics was a scene where Tony compels Don Shirley to try fried chicken, something the musician says he never tried. The production purposefully worked on this scene, knowing the racial connotations attached to the foodstuff (such is our era where food can be deemed “racist”.) This scene is held as “proof” that this is a tale of a white man “opening the eyes” of a black character.
Leveling this charge ignores the other aspects of the film.
Throughout the movie Don Shirley is positioned as superior to Tony, in numerous ways. He is talented, well educated, far better spoken and imbued with class many strata above the blue-collar driver. Frequently Shirley admonishes his charge on his comportment, and his use of vulgarity. He assists Tony in writing letters to his wife back home. During one critique Tony loudly asks why he is always coming down on him, to which Don calmy states, “You can do better.”
If Tony forcing fried chicken on Don is regarded as demeaning what of the far more belittling scenes we see flowing in the other direction? At one point Tony tosses fast-food cup out the car window and Don forces him to backup and retrieve the discarded refuse. In other moment Tony is spotted shoplifting a decorative stone from an artist vendor and is made to return to properly pay for the item.
As character interactions go Don exerts far more pressure to change on the unrefined Tony.
This interplay however does not merit critical analysis. Why not? Why is it acceptable, or at least lingering as unquestioned, when the black character gives life guidance to the white character? At one early point Don Shirley quietly berates Tony for shooting craps with other drivers during one of his performances, sounding almost as if he were addressing a wayward teen. We never hear a harsh assessment, though, of how this is racially inappropriate.
Disputing The Facts And The Critiques
Many of the critiques of the film that should be heeded come from the surviving family members of Don Shirley. They have disputed numerous items in the film, such as Shirley’s estrangement from his family. They maintain he had always been in warm contact with them up to his death a few years ago.
Also of some dispute is their saying that Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga were not friends, and their relationship never rose above employee-employer status. They have even gone so far as to say that Shirley even had that structure with his fellow musicians.
While this could certainly be true, it does not make a case for a racial issue. Could it merit as something positive to have a man like Vallelonga want to aspire to being friends with another, one he previously would have held in contempt based on skin color?
The family also takes issue with the portrayal of Don Shirley as a man who felt a distance with his own race. Some scenes show the musician as having something of a disconnect with other African Americans. This is shown in the movie as possibly more connected to his stature and education. It is also reflected in the distance he places between himself and Tony.
This issue seems far more ingrained with class than race.
The family has come out and complained that Don Shirley was not properly portrayed. However one other Shirley family member may lend an explanation. A nephew, Edwin Shirley III, stated that his Uncle Don had long resisted participating in his life story.
“I remember very, very clearly, going back 30 years,” said Edwin, “my uncle had been approached by Nick Vallelonga, the son of Tony Vallelonga, about a movie on his life, and Uncle Donald told me about it. He flatly refused.”
This means for decades this is a story attempted to bring to the screen, and there is a bit of symmetry, given that the family of one character is saying this is a disservice. This is not the case of a random white person attempting to tell a black man’s story. There is another character involved in the story, and his family is in fact involved in its creation.
It stands to reason that the reticence from Don Shirley to tell his side leads to a reframing of the story, as told through the eyes of his driver. If decades passed without a notable contribution then the plot had to have been centered on Tony Lip, and Don Shirley’s role is seen through that rearview mirror, as it were. But there is one other notable instance of convenient criticism when it comes to racial portrayals in film, and it brings us back to that outraged director from Sunday night, Spike Lee.
Isn’t This Film Problematic, Too?
The parallels in his film “BlacKkKlansman” to the telling of “Green Book” are quite notable; the story is decades old, it was based on real people, it involves interactions between black and white primary characters and race is a central theme. Yet with these common elements the inherent racial critiques are not being voiced — in fact many critics say Lee’s film should have won.
In his script (adapted from the book by Ron Stallworth and co-written with three others) Lee features an FBI agent who infiltrates the Klan, by telephone. He needs to have a white detective stand in for him during face-to-face meetings, and that agent is of particular focus here. That white agent is named Flip Zimmerman, played by Oscar nominee Adam Driver, and curiously we see another parallel with “Green Book”.
In one scene we watch as Zimmerman has a monologue on what it means for him to be Jewish, stating that although he was identified as such ethnically he was not Orthodox, nor even a practicing Jew. He wrestles with this identifier as his black co-worker is imploring him to assist in their work against the Klan.
How is Lee forgiven for this? You have a black writer creating a scene where a white character is displayed as having a certain level of disconnect with his own identity, and neither the actual individual nor his family were contacted for their input (Stallworth has used an alias to describe his partner in the book.)
This is the exact framework that “Green Book” was created with, but once we flip the races of those involved one movie has an unacceptable depiction.
We hear no such contempt being levelled by writers and pundits over “BlacKkKlansman” taking racial liberties. I think we can take this as a sign that Hollywood still has a lengthy path in front of it in regards to racial correctness.
Maybe those in the industry should sort things out first, before they embark on lectures to the nation on such matters.