For years, the film industry has operated on an assumption of a straight, white male audience. Thanks to the Great Awokening, that assumption is slipping away, replaced by the long-delayed realization that producing products for diverse audiences means more money. What happens, then, when a new movie – in this case, a fact-based period piece with Oscar aspirations and buddy comedy tropes in its DNA – arrives which fails to live up to the new standard and happily engages in the old way of doing things? A lot of backlash online, which is predictable enough, but also anemic box office, which is a newer and more damning reaction.
The movie: Green Book.
The plot: Reverse Driving Miss Daisy. Or, a virtuoso black pianist named Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) – aka Dr. Shirley, as he preferred to be called due to various honorary doctoral degrees – hires a gruff, racist white Italian named Tony Lipp (Viggo Mortensen) to be his driver and bodyguard on a concert tour of the deep South in 1962. Hilarity and life lessons ensue. In the end, Tony is made a better person through having seen what life is like for the people on the other side of the street, and Dr. Shirley finally takes steps to conquer his profound loneliness.
- It’s another movie about racism filtered through the white point of view, with Shirley’s plight being the fuel to ignite change inside Lipp’s heart. 50 years later and we’re still watching the Sidney Poitier-Rod Steiger In the Heat of the Night dynamic play out, still subjected to a story which believes the best way to talk about racism is to appeal to an assumed white viewer’s sympathies.
- It has been made and written by white men, most notably co-writer/director Peter Farrelly (of 90s gross-out comedy fame). “I’m sure there will be some criticism that the film is not authentic because it’s not dark enough. But that’s not my style,” he explained to Newsweek, in reference to the film’s lighter tone and heavy supply of jokes.
- They didn’t even contact Shirley’s family to consult on the script. Shirley, along with Lipp, died in 2013. Lipp’s son then adapted the various interviews he’d conducted with his father about his enduring friendship with Shirley into the script for Green Book. The producers, a group which includes Octavia Spencer, were led to believe Shirley had no surviving family members meaning Lipp would have to be their primary source. They were wrong. Shirley’s 86-year-old brother is still alive and now says the film is “full of lies.” Shirley’s niece has disowned the whole thing. Farrelly claims they were caught generally unaware Shirley had any surviving relatives.
None of this necessarily means Green Book is a bad movie, at least if judged on traditional criteria like directing, acting, story structure. Indeed, the National Board of Review, the second-longest tenured movie awards body after the Academy, saw plenty to like about it. Over the weekend, NBR selected Green Book as its Best Movie of the Year, an award which has gone to in recent years to The Post, Manchester By the Sea, Mad Max: Fury Road, Her, and various other films which went on to be nominated for Best Picture by the Academy. Furthermore, Mortenson, who added at least 30 pounds of weight for the part, was awarded Best Actor.
With this unexpected boost, Green Book has regained some of the awards buzz it had coming out of the Toronto Film Festival, where it was greeted with standing ovations and won the audience award. Like last year’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which made half its money after the Oscar nominations, the distributor, Universal, is now hoping Green Book’s box office boost is just around the corner, that all is not lost just yet despite having already been written off as an awards season flop by box office analysts.
Of course, the National Board of Review also gave its Best Picture award to Driving Miss Daisy nearly 30 years ago. So did the Academy. Both of them ignoring Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in the process. So, ya know, mistakes have been made in the past and will continue to be in the future. That’s the nature of the beast. Just because an early awards season tastemaker like NBR jumped on the Green Book hype train doesn’t mean the woke critics are wrong nor does it mean they’re right.
What it really means is Green Book is a rather good version of an outdated kind of movie, the kind of thing anyone over 35 will instantly recognize as a fight-the-power story with Oscars in its eyes but anyone under 35 will look at as overly simplistic, formulaic tripe, the likes of which Hollywood has been doling out for far too long. As The Washington Post argued, “With its gentle disposition, rich production values and jaunty road-movie structure, [Green Book] is a throwback to a time when movies addressed problems as things to be solved, not through gnarly structural reforms or (heaven forfend) revolutionary change, but through personal redemption, most often on the part of a white hero enlightened at the hands of an almost inhumanly perfect black foil.”
It attempts to speak to our modern divisions through a true, audience-pleasing story of a white man and a black man who couldn’t have been more different yet came to understand and love one another. Through their journey, they confront their preconceptions and are made more complete by being together, a hopeful message for our dim times, but only if you are receptive to it.
Mortenson’s endlessly entertaining Tony, who talks like a low-level Godfather gangster possibly because the real Tony later became an actor in Godfather and other mob movies, is not the totally unenlightened brute he initially appears to be. (“I’ve seen enough to know the world is a complicated place,” he says to explain his non-reaction to, spoiler, a surprise reveal about Shirley’s sexuality.) Ali’s Don is a man without a people, neither black nor white enough to fit in anywhere, which is a deeply fascinating conflict to watch. It’s what drew Ali to the project, “There are so many African-Americans who are told by other African-Americans that they’re not black enough, as well as by white people. ‘Oh, you don’t sound like me.’ ‘You’re not really from the hood.’”
But Green Book is a movie written by Tony’s son (and re-written by Farrelly and Brian Currie, also white). Not surprisingly, Tony emerges as more of the protagonist than Don. Tony is the character the script understands, Don the mystery it never totally solves. Tony has a family waiting at home, headed by Linda Cardellini (who is making a new career out of playing “mom/wife” roles), and the film routinely checks back in on them. Don, by contrast, is granted cursory references to a brother he never sees and an ex-wife who couldn’t stand being married to a touring musician.
That’s what has proved so irksome to woke critics. If only this had been directed and/or written by a person of a color. If only Farrelly had proven himself more curious about Don’s inner life instead of glimpsing everything through Tony’s eyes. If only this had been a Don Shirley biopic. He was a prodigy, after all, capable of playing all the classics by age 10 and making his concert debut at age 18, playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat with the Boston Pops. He was advised out of the classical scene and into jazz by power brokers who suspected white audiences would never accept him, and he toured the South to challenge that notion. Make a movie about that, not about a couple of months in 1962 when a white dude went with him and learned racism sure does suck. Or if you make that movie don’t let the white dude pull focus.
That’s not what happened, though. Instead, Green Book is a rather good-intentioned, old-fashioned movie at a time when certain audiences have had it up to here with your damn good intentions. Green Book? Give us Blindspotting, The Hate U Give, Widows, Sorry to Bother You, Creed 2, BlackKklansmen or any other 2018 movie about the black experience from actual black filmmakers. If not that, then at least give us Hidden Figures, a film about black history that though directed by a white person did not feel the need to filter everything through a white audience surrogate character.
Or so the argument has gone.
I can’t quite go that far. I actually like Green Book, cringe-inducing fried chicken scene and all. But I’m white, over 35, and have never experienced nor will I ever fully understand true discrimination. I’m exactly who this movie is meant for. As I look around at the criticism being thrown Green Book’s way, I’m more keenly aware of my own privilege and am left thinking of a great line from another 2018 awards hopeful: “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.”