Calm Down. ‘Green Book’ Isn’t So Bad
Oscar’s divisive Best Picture isn’t the travesty everyone says it is.
I have a confession to make that probably won’t win me a lot of love in the aftermath of the Academy Awards’ latest most egregious Best Picture coronation ever: I liked Green Book.
Did I think it was the best film of 2018? Not even close. My favorite was BlacKkKlansman, which like Pulp Fiction vs. Forrest Gump nearly a quarter of a century ago, had to settle for a lone screenplay Oscar. Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Eighth Grade, First Reformed, and The Kindergarten Teacher scored zero Oscars combined, and I preferred all four to Green Book.
It wasn’t even 2018's second-best movie about race. That honor goes to If Beale Street Could Talk. So yeah, the Academy missed the mark by a Green mile this time, but I still enjoyed director Peter Farrelly’s comedy-drama. A lot.
Much of my enjoyment came from the character that won Mahershala Ali his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar in three years. Whether he has a little, a lot, or nothing in common with the real-life Don Shirley, who died in 2013, I identified with him in a way I didn’t relate to any other character played by a 2019 Oscar nominee, even the six other LGBTQ ones.
I spent my entire childhood and much of my adult life feeling alienated from white people because of my skin color and feeling alienated from black people because I didn’t talk, walk, and act “black” enough. In middle school and high school, my thick Caribbean accent — which earned me taunts and punches from some of my black classmates — worked against me as vigorously as my skin color did. When Ali as Don Shirley delivers his big outcast speech in the pouring rain, he’s speaking my truth, too.
No white person ever introduced me to black music, but I’ve had white people insist they’re blacker than me because I love rock & roll and I’m more than a little bit country, and some have inadvertently questioned my blackness. (One recently insisted I was the only black person he’d ever met who didn’t sing well.) Even if the real Don Shirley had a great relationship with the black community and discovered the genius of Little Richard all on his own, the scenes that address the multiple layers of black estrangement and isolation ring true for me.
Introducing … Don Shirley
I also give Green Book credit for introducing the masses and me to an unsung black talent: Shirley. We already knew that Lady Gaga is a beast of a singer and songwriter, so I’ve never understood why people acted like she was such a revelation in A Star Is Born.
We’ve spent decades being floored by Queen. Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t expose us to anything new musically (and it squandered its opportunity to make a meaningful statement about HIV and AIDS and the deadly stigma that was attached to it in the ’80s). But Green Book paid homage to the virtuosity of an obscure black pianist, even if it misrepresented certain aspects of his personal life. When was the last time a box-office hit has done that?
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So the creative team invented a scene where a street-tough white man teaches an urbane black man how to eat fried chicken, and they presented Shirley as a loner without a real home (his survivors dispute his lack of family ties in Green Book, but of course they would). It’s not like biopics and movies based on true stories haven’t been taking liberties with reality since the beginning of time — or at least going back to the early days of Hollywood.
With all but two 2019 Best Picture Oscar nominees (A Star Is Born and Black Panther) biopics or movies based on true stories, at least four of the six other nominees carried on the Hollywood tradition of embellishing history for maximum dramatic or comedic effect.
Vice director and writer Adam McKay invented a third-wall-breaking narrator (and Cheney heart donor) to spoon feed us his political message and tried way too hard to sell the Macbethian parallels of Dick and Lynne Cheney’s relationship? Did they ever recite Shakespeare in bed as Vice would have us believe?
Yes, I know it was intentional comedy, but so was the fried chicken scene in Green Book. As someone who always eats chicken with a knife and fork, I didn’t take offense to the idea of a white person telling a black person how one should devour the bird. White people make fun of my dainty chicken-eating style all the time — but not one of them has ever suggested that I, of all people, should know better. Fried chicken is not a black thing, so who cares if movie Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Best Actor non-winner Viggo Mortensen) shows movie Don Shirley how to eat it?
Fried chicken is not a black thing, so who cares if movie Tony Lip shows movie Don Shirley how to eat it?
If anything, the scene pokes fun of the stereotype connecting black people to fried chicken. I laughed with Shirley for thinking he could eat it with dignity in a moving vehicle, but I laughed at Lip— and rolled my eyes extra hard — because of his dumb racist buffoonery. Some “white savior.” Lip might save Shirley from Jim Crow fallout (as his job description dictates), but Shirley saves Lip from his own stupidity. Plus, he can speak Russian and Italian, and he’s well-connected to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
Green Book hardly depicts Shirley as some spineless black man who’s nothing without his white underling. I’m much more dismayed by Bohemian Rhapsody’s asexual Freddie Mercury who spends most of his adult life pining for a woman while his bisexuality is shoved into the background and trotted out only as a reason for his AIDS diagnosis.
And don’t get me started on The Favourite’s peek behind the closed palace doors of Britain’s Queen Anne. (Loved the movie, though.) Does anyone really know what went down in her majesty’s bedchamber? Biopics may never stop walking the line between fantasy and reality. If we want historical accuracy, we probably should stick to documentaries.
Man in the middle
As for Green Book’s primary focus on Lip, it makes sense that the story would be told from his point of view, considering that his son co-wrote the screenplay. It’s actually Lip’s biopic, not Shirley’s. The title might have suggested a different focus, but it’s not like the movie pretends Jim Crow wasn’t the law of the South. Racism logs considerable screen time, especially compared to homophobia’s presence in Bohemian Rhapsody. By now, we all should know how bad it was for blacks in the Deep South of the early 1960s without the movie lingering on racial brutality.
Should the filmmakers have done more research into the life of Shirley? Perhaps. Or maybe his family can make the movie they want to see, one that tells the story from Shirley’s point of view. But even though Mahershala Ali won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (his category placement was more strategic than statement-making), he is onscreen far more in Green Book than Best Actress winner Olivia Colman is in The Favourite. Shirley may sit in the backseat, but he’s no backseat character.
That’s not to say that Green Book isn’t remotely reductive. Like A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s two hours-plus of retro filmmaking. Its oversimplified take on race relations is straight out of 1960s Hollywood and not so far removed from Gone with the Wind, 1939’s Best Picture that few would deem unworthy today. Yes, times have changed, but then, they haven’t, as the last two years have proven. Hollywood and the Oscars, like America, are stuck in the past.
A Star Is Born, the third remake of the 1937 film, overhauls its source material but still keeps the star’s pre-feminism character arc intact. As she finds her identity as an artist, as a person, she’s introducing herself using her husband’s surname. At the end, she’s defined not by her work but by her husband’s tragic life. It’s as if women’s liberation never happened.
Then, there’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which seems so uncomfortable with homosexuality that it’s presented ’90s-style, with more suggestion and innuendo than action. The 1982 movie Making Love went so much further in depicting a gay man living a lie, and we got more man-on-man action in Alan Bates and Oliver Reed’s nude wrestling scene in Women in Love 50 years ago.
Green Book’s narrative is as creaky as hell but no more so than last year’s overpraised Mudbound, another retro race-themed movie that dwelled on its white characters. More movies need to start putting racism in the present tense, a la The Hate U Give last year, or Lee’s Do the Right Thing in 1989, so that white audiences can stop deludedly thinking it’s all in the past, which is where the Academy prefers it to be.
Beautifully matched as Mortenson and Ali are in Green Book, I never considered the movie itself to be Oscar-caliber. I was surprised when it started getting award-season attention for anything other than the acting.
But maybe I shouldn’t have been. The Academy loves a race movie that allows white audiences to feel self-satisfied or self-righteous. If the racist white person earns redemption through learning to accept the black person as his or her equal, as in Green Book, white viewers can pat themselves on the back. Job well done.
The Academy loves a race movie that allows white audiences to feel self-satisfied or self-righteous.
If the race movie presents the racist white person as an irredeemable villain (see 12 Years a Slave), white viewers can feel superior or like they’re the race that’s truly overcome. See how far we’ve come?
Same story, different decade
It’s a black and white narrative that’s been dominating Hollywood for years, and Oscar can’t stop falling for it. This year, the Academy finally recognized Spike Lee with a Best Director nomination, but BlacKkKlansman might have been too confrontational for voters to fully embrace. Its black hero successfully infiltrates the KKK and takes down the bad guys (interesting that no-one objected to its lone acting nomination going to a white actor, Adam Driver, in the Best Supporting Actor category), but the Charlottesville footage that Lee included at the end underscores just how far we haven’t come.
Meanwhile, over on Beale Street, white audiences got none of the things they’ve come to require from its race movies. There’s no resolution, no redemption. Its black male characters denounce white America and white Americans while dropping still-relevant truth bombs that were too explosive for the Academy to handle.
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For me, the truth hurts so good. Maybe it’s the masochist in me. If I had only movies like Green Book to represent race relations onscreen, I’d probably be upset, too. Maybe we should stop placing so much importance on what the Academy honors, and be grateful that we have more choices than we did 29 years ago when Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture while Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated.
Thank God, we have black directors and writers like Lee, Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, and Issa Rae to show us the truth about black and white, if we’re willing to face it.