It's a cold December evening in Cincinnati. I'm heading to my favorite movie theater in the city, giddy with the anticipation of seeing one of the highly anticipated Best Picture hopefuls. It's Green Book's opening night in the area, a film with much hype surrounding it after it won the prestigious People's Choice Award at Toronto International Film Festival. This award has always been a strong precursor to the Oscars. (Only one film in the past 11 years has won the prize and not been ultimately nominated for Best Picture, with 4 of them, now including Green Book, going on win.) To that point, everyone had been buzzing about how cheerful and playful the film is, with wonderful chemistry between its leads. When it was over, I could see why. Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is a lovable, stereotypical 1950's Italian who, thanks to his brilliant, talented, and intellectually superior counterpart, Dr. Don Shirley, (Mahershala Ali) discovers the errors of his racist tropes. (Overtly seen at the beginning of the film when Lip throws away some glassware because they were touched by two POC.) Together they become best friends. It's an undeniably feel-good story, with a simple solution: the idea that all we have to do to solve systemic racism in our society is to talk, listen, and learn from each other. There are some issues in the filmmaking itself, (more on that later) but it is an objectively good film, at the very least.
Why did I open with saying something nice about Green Book? Because, despite the title of this article, it is important to remember that I am not saying that Green Book is a bad film. It's not Bohemian Rhapsody and its shameless attempts to revise history while simultaneously skirting around the hardest parts of Freddie Mercury's life, wrapped up in mediocre filmmaking with entirely too much influence from the real-life members of the band. (Didn't know you were gonna get a brief condemnation of that film, did you?) But, Best Picture is not for "good films." It's (supposed to be) for the "best" films of the year. That should be pretty self-explanatory, right? It is ludicrous to me to say Green Book is anywhere close to the "Best" Picture of the year, even if you remove the insidious takes on race, the disingenuous intentions of the filmmakers, the hideous point of view, AND the controversies surrounding Nick Vallelonga, Peter Farrelly, and Viggo Mortensen. We're gonna talk about ALL of those, (this is a deep dive, after all) but let's first look at this film from twenty thousand feet up.
If you TRULY believe Green Book is the Best Picture of the Year, tell me: what about the film sticks out to you? What separates it from all the other contenders? Yes, it makes you feel good. Yes, it's pleasant and quirky, and its leads have great chemistry. But what about this specific film makes it the "best" of the year? Outside of its HORRIBLE ending, which we'll get to, I don't remember anything, besides Tony eating all the time. (I did laugh when he folded an entire pizza in half and went to town on it.) In contrast, I could write an entire article on the underappreciated perfection of Roma's sound mixing. I could talk about Spike Lee's topical brilliance in BlacKkKlansman, highlighted by one of the best endings I've ever seen in film. I could talk about the power of Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, not to mention its titanic cultural impact over the past year. I could talk about the breathtaking cinematography of Barry Jenkins If Beale Street Could Talk. I could talk about the mastery of Can You Ever Forgive Me?'s screenplay, which has the unattractive job of making an unscrupulous human being likable. I could talk about the intimate wisdom of Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters, and write an entire think piece on the meaning of family and the message the master director is trying to convey in the film's gut-wrenching third act. I could talk about the dynamics between the queen and her subjects, and the wonderfully bizarre ties to modern society in Yorgos Lanthimos's unabashedly strange The Favourite. Heck, I could even talk about the dizzying presence of Lynne Cheney felt all throughout the admittedly mediocre Vice. But Green Book? I have nothing overtly positive to say about the film outside of: it's charming. If you have something else truly groundbreaking to say about the film that makes it worthy of Best Picture, I'm all ears.
That charm was immediately lost for me in the theater that cold December night as that film's final act came to a close. I had just witnessed one of the most uncomfortable, cringe-inducing, bow-tie endings to a film about race imaginable. The film's ending, where a lonely Dr. Shirley joins Tony Lip's family for Christmas dinner and everyone gets along like Shirley's been part of the family for decades, sent a dangerous message about the film's overarching theme. Not only does the movie provide an overly simplified solution to systemic racism, that we can all get along if we simply talk out our differences, but it also heavily implies that systemic racism is an issue that we put in our rear view mirror in the 20th century. (Similar to all those disingenuous think pieces that all claimed we had "solved racism" after the country elected Obama president in 2008.)
The overall message of this film is insidious for a variety of reasons. Notably, it leads to complacency among those in power in the real world. When one side of the aisle is still allowing people literally affiliated with the KKK (Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, in case you don't know who I'm referring to) to stay in power, it's easy for the other side to simply say "we're doing our best" while simultaneously ignoring things like our overcrowded prison system, or the overzealous "war on drugs" which has allowed the police force to utilize racial profiling, or the over militarization of the police force itself, or even something as simple as accurate presentation of crime on local news. All of which are major factors that have led to the vicious cycle of poverty and the underlying segregation in our communities, known as redlining, which has allowed systemic racism to survive and thrive in our country today. (All of those issues have been highlighted and corroborated by dozens of peer-reviewed studies, so I'm not going to get into arguing their validity with anyone because it's a waste of time to get into a debate about the very foundation of systemic racism at this point.)
It's easy for us white Americans who think of ourselves as "woke," or "intellectual," to sit back and say we're trying, and simultaneously let our hearts fill with glee when every member of Tony Lip's family accepts Dr. Shirley for who he is. That's all we have to do to solve racism, right? Just accept everyone for who they are? If only it were as simple as that. (Also, this is despite the fact that most of Tony Lip's family, when last we saw them on screen, had done/said everything under the overtly racist spectrum short of don white hoods and parade around the streets of NYC, but that's more an issue with the film itself.)
White Americans, especially old and rich white Americans, think their intentions are pure and wholehearted because they do something like routinely vote Democrat. ("I would've voted for Obama for a third term" is such an overused defense mechanism among white America to deflect from any racist tropes we may have that it became a tent pole line in Jordan Peele's Get Out.) It's easy for white Americans who watch Green Book to have a safe, comfortable distance from the film's racist lead, because after all, we would never do something like "throw away glassware because a black man drank from it!" Therefore, we're not racist, right?
White America wants nothing more than to believe that an issue as massive and overbearing as systemic racism was solved at some point in our past in the big cities, relegating the unpleasant history to only the south and the country's heartland. Yet, for the most basic of counterarguments, you need not look past the highest office in the land to know it is a major issue that is very alive and very well today. The deceitful ending of Green Book (as well as its racist hero it keeps at arm's length) appeals directly to the old, liberal, affluent, white man that still embodies a large portion of the Academy's voting base, and to many of those vehemently defending the baffling choice.
And this is where we bring up Crash. Up until a week ago, Crash was regularly lamented as the worst Best Picture winner of the 21st century, with some going as labeling it the worst Best Picture winner ever. There are many, MANY issues with Crash, not least of which is its own outdated take on systemic racism, and the film itself is rather poorly put together. Director Paul Haggis has some incredibly early-2000s moments in this film that are somewhat laughable when revisited today. (Highlighted by the now hilariously cringy but still iconic "burning car" sequence.) If we were judging Crash and Green Book based solely on the films themselves, I'd say, unequivocally, that Crash is a worse film. Heck, I'd even say films like The King's Speech, (ugh) Chicago, and A Beautiful Mind are all worse, on the surface, than Green Book. Sure, Green Book has a dated take on racism, and is a rather uneventful film, but that's nothing new in show business, particularly with previous Best Picture winners. We all know now, 30 years later, that Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing was the vastly superior film to 1989's Best Picture winner Driving Ms. Daisy. Or that Pulp Fiction is the significantly more influential film to Forrest Gump. Heck, there's no doubt that Brokeback Mountain is the far more important film to Crash. However, for me, Green Book takes the cake for the title of this article because of the disingenuous process that went into the making of this film. A process which, in hindsight, paints a harrowing and depressingly ironic allegory to the very definition of systemic racism itself.
There's no doubt that when director Peter Farrelly and writers Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie pitched the idea for Green Book back in 2016, they didn't have their eyes set on winning Best Picture. This film, like many others, started as something of a passion project, a low budget film from a director desperate to put his recent past (Dumb and Dumber To and a disastrous The Three Stooges remake in Farrelly's case) behind him. (This is not too different from Paul Haggis's story making Crash.) However, as Green Book's production began to take shape, the path of Peter Farrelly and the screenwriters quickly veered into the dangerous realm of misguided intentions and raw ambition. The filmmakers formulated a theme for the film then started putting the pieces together to fit said theme, instead of allowing a theme to organically form through the film on its own. (See Roma or Moonlight as stellar examples of the later.) In my opinion, the production of Crash did not stop to think about what statement they may be making on race. (for better or worse) Contrarily the production of Green Book thought long and hard about it and decided to unashamedly lean into their outdated sentiments it in an effort to appeal to seemingly the widest possible audience. (White America.)
This manipulation began with the treatment of the film's lone black character, Dr. Don Shirley. (Keep in mind Crash, at least, has two major black characters, an oversimplified justification for why Green Book is worse.) The film's writers did get approval from the Shirley estate to make the film, but that is as far as their collaboration with the Shirley family went. Dr. Shirley, one of the greatest jazz/classical pianists of the 20th century, is a poorly vetted and underdeveloped character. At times he is a mere plot device for the film's white lead. Imagine the uproar from white America if this was a film about a black man driving Elvis around on a huge tour, and the vast majority of the film was spent on the black person discovering himself or something. That premise wouldn't even make it past the pitch room. Dr. Shirley's character in the film is saved only by the performance of Mahershala Ali, who brings emphatically more nuance to a role that had virtually none of it on the page.
Ok, so that veered a bit more into the issues of Green Book's point of view, more on that later.
As the notoriety of Green Book grew, so did its resentment. The response from Dr. Shirley's family was...... not great, as they called the film "full of lies." The screenwriters basically did whatever they wanted to the Shirley character in order to fit Tony Lip's arc, facts be damned. When the real life family behind one of your two (supposedly) main characters decries the film as, well, bull shit, that controversy should've instantly sunk Green Book's Oscar hopes. Instead, the Shirley family was at best ignored and at worst beguiled and insulted by "supporters" of the film, who thought they had a right to attack the family of (supposedly) one half of this film's main characters. Meanwhile, the Lip family was HEAVILY involved in the film's production, as screenwriter Nick Vallelonga himself is Tony Lip's real life son. If I told you that the family of one half of a film's main duo co-wrote the screenplay and was involved every step of the way, while the family of the other half of the duo condemned the final product, do you think there's any possibility that the former would be the black character and the latter would be the white character? If so, give me a SINGLE example of when that's happened in the past in film. Ever. I'll wait.
Sadly, the controversies didn't stop there. The first one, Viggo Mortensen using the N-word at a Q&A in November, could be summed up as an innocent, though still problematic, mishap on a long and grueling awards trail. He immediately apologized and penned a seemingly heartfelt statement to go along with, and had the support of Mahershala Ali in the days that followed. If this is all of the issues this film had seen on the award's circuit, I STILL would not call it the worst Best Picture winner of the 21st century. In hindsight, it was the most inconsequential.
The next controversy, which should have (again) immediately sunk any hopes for any recognition whatsoever from the Academy, came when a 2015 tweet from screenwriter Nick Vallelonga (remember, Tony Lip's son) surfaced in which he endorsed the overtly racist and xenophobic Donald Trump conspiracy theory about Muslims cheering after 9/11. No apology is enough for a then 55 year old man to knowingly endorse something as vile as that. At that point, Nick Vallelonga should have taken his millions and the inevitable royalties from the film, and fallen into the sunken place, never to be heard from again. Instead, he now has two Oscars to his name. As if this wasn't enough, we also got a #MeToo moment for director Peter Farrelly, as a story surfaced that he thought it was somehow funny to whip his junk out on set back in the 90s, particularly traumatizing women on the set of There's Something About Mary. I know it was a different time in the 90s, but that's no legitimate excuse. It wasn't cool to do something like that then any more than it is today - women simply didn't feel like they had the power to speak up and not have their career's ruined while they watch the man continue on, unscathed, until now. (And even now this doesn't happen all the time......)
There has been a shocking amount of backlash to the backlash of this film. Many people have come roaring to the defense of Green Book because it made them "feel good." And I get that, I really do! But, how is Green Book's uplifting nature so unique? You mean to tell me you didn't see a single other film in 2018 that made you feel good? Black Panther is the embodiment of a feel good film, while also delivering a far more intelligent message about race in our society throughout. BlacKkKlansman is an uplifting film prior to Spike making it real in the final few minutes. (In the real ending about race relations we deserved in 2018.) You could even make the argument that Roma is an uplifting film. I mean, heck, an argument could be made that freaking Vice is an uplifting film, and certainly the mediocre Bohemian Rhapsody ends on a very high note. That it's "uplifting" as an argument can be applied to 6 films in the Best Picture category alone. This is not a unique trait to Green Book.
But that is just one of the "counterarguments" for the defense of Green Book. The one that most irks me is the, "Well, if Green Book had been made by a black filmmaker, would you have the same issues with it?" counter. Simple answer (yes) aside, if you honestly believe that someone like Spike Lee or Ava DuVernay or any other POC director would take the groundbreaking story of one of the 20th century's great pianists going on a trailblazing tour through the Deep South and tell it from the perspective of his white driver, then you really do not understand the underlying issues of systemic racism. Point of view is EVERYTHING, and it's one of the fundamental issues of the film. There is no doubt that if Barry Jenkins had been given the reins on this project, Mahershala Ali would've been the star and Viggo Mortensen would've been the supporting actor.
Another counter that I've been hearing says, "Spike Lee and other black filmmakers should be happy with where they are." While this argument is eerily similar to those against athletes kneeling during the national anthem, it also comes from a place of white privilege. For years, we've seen mediocre films made by white filmmakers receive far more accolades than they deserve. In contrast, when a POC filmmaker makes something short of greatness, at best they're ignored, (see: Barry Jenkin's Moonlight follow-up, If Beale Street Could Talk, which was overlooked in the Best Picture category) and at worst they are victims to an abhorrent and racist backlash from white America. (See: the overblown response to Ava DuVernay's audacious A Wrinkle in Time.) Let's see a couple mediocre films made by POC filmmakers win Best Picture first, and THEN we can talk about "merit-based equality." Also, Spike Lee has more than earned his recognition. The dude is easily the most influential POC filmmaker in the history of show business, and it took him 30 years to win his first Oscar. The same year a white dude responsible for films like Dumb and Dumber To, The Three Stooges, The Heartbreak Kid, and Hall Pass wins Best Picture. Also, I adored Spike's genuine, human response to it all. People like him, Jordan Peele, and Chadwick Boseman all summed up the sentiment many of us had when we initially heard Green Book's name called. As Spike Lee said, "I was courtside at the Garden, and the ref made a bad call."
Another counterargument that is driving me insane is the "But, look! Octavia Spencer was involved, and Rep. John Lewis / Amandla Stenberg (ironically the lead from the superior The Hate You Give) introduced the film! That makes it ok, right?" argument. First off, no. Second off..... it's 2019, white America. How long until we realize that the "I'm not racist because I have a black friend" argument doesn't mean anything? I mean, you do realize that that same justification was used in the Michael Cohen hearing this past week to say Trump isn't racist, right? It's not ok. It's not a wand you can wave to exacerbate yourself or anyone else. Octavia Spencer, Rep. John Lewis, and Amandla Stenberg all were (presumably) defending the merits of Green Book on their own free will, but that does not give white Americans a blank check to excuse the film's problematic take on race. Also, look at Octavia Spencer all throughout Green Book's Best Picture acceptance speech. If that is not the face of someone who has NO DESIRE to be on that stage in that moment, then I don't know what is.
Merely two years ago, a film like La La Land was sunk for Best Picture because, in large part, people were justifiably upset over the lead character being white and trying to "save jazz." (That and Moonlight is arguably the most influential film of this decade. Minor detail, right?) There were no issues with the filmmakers on the award's circuit. It was the mere appearance of disingenuous intentions that did it in. Now, we're witnessing a vastly inferior film hoist Hollywood's most prestigious award in large part because the old white people in the Academy were fed up with being told what films they could and could not like. Like Crash beating out the superior Brokeback Mountain, Green Book beat out vastly superior films. Roma signaled the triumphant arrival of Netflix as a power player in the industry, with an intimidating award's budget (apparently over $25mil) for the black and white foreign language film that has some industry executives (i.e. Steven Spielberg) so flustered that they are actively trying to prevent Netflix from contending at the Oscars going forward. BlacKkKlansman is a master auteur's greatest work since his dramatic debut, with a far more topically relevant take on race relations for 2018. Black Panther is easily the most culturally groundbreaking film since Get Out, (maybe even more so) with the added bonus of being a huge studio production and Marvel's first entry in the Best Picture category. And all got passed over for a regressive, forgettable film because it's charming.
In this deep dive, I've talked about Green Book's issues in production, its dated message about racism, its stilted point of view, and the controversies that REALLY should have sunk its Best Picture chances. Sadly, none of those issues were able to stop this freight train of old, stereotypical, #OscarsSoWhite Hollywood from taking home Best Picture. The crew's acceptance speech for the award perfectly summarizes the fundamental issues behind this film. During the Best Picture acceptance speech, Peter Farrelly awkwardly gushed over Viggo Mortensen and his contributions to the film before briefly thanking Mahershala and Linda Cardellini, (also the only woman in the film, playing a stereotypical "the wife" role, as if the regressive issues with race weren't enough) then going back to continue to gush over Viggo's contributions. You know whose name was not mentioned by any of the white men in that speech? Dr. Don Shirley. One of the producers even felt the need to thank Carrie Fisher for some reason, but none of them thought to thank the Shirley family. And that unintentionally ironic metaphor could not more aptly sum up Green Book. How long before Hollywood stops making films like this, let alone giving them Best Picture?
https://m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BNzI4NzIzNzgwNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzM2MjIxNjM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_.jpg (Green Book banner)
https://m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BMjYyZDYzMzQtYzVlOS00OGE3LWEwM2ItMzMyYzAzOWUyM2NlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1554,1000_AL_.jpg (Green Book bar pic)
https://m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BMjYyZDYzMzQtYzVlOS00OGE3LWEwM2ItMzMyYzAzOWUyM2NlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1554,1000_AL_.jpg (Bradley Whitford)
https://cf-images.us-east-1.prod.boltdns.net/v1/static/769341148/c4dba9c6-ec52-4685-ba12-555935785fcb/2f90ba85-afd2-489f-a7d8-20c196d91878/1280x720/match/image.jpg (Green Book wins Best Original screenplay)
https://7lwy5tgst9-flywheel.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/EJX-HdvDVPll.jpg (Dr. Don Shirley)
https://media.vanityfair.com/photos/5be59f74eb081e5b66a599ec/master/pass/GettyImages-1059016918.jpg (Mahershala + Viggo)
https://cdnph.upi.com/svc/sv/upi/2021551099963/2019/1/30226b26f2c4bb7344940e24c317b8fe/Spike-Lee-upset-over-Green-Book-Oscar-win-Im-snakebit.jpg (Spike + Mahershala)
https://img.apmcdn.org/d392ad0731c8e5c43901644357b08f76a22f796e/uncropped/df24a3-20190224-green-book.jpg (Green Book wins Best Picture)
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