Green Book started at the top. When the movie about a queer black classical musician (Mahershala Ali) and his Italian-American chauffeur (Viggo Mortensen) driving through the Jim Crow South in the '60s premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018, it was greeted by a flurry of exuberant critical reviews and a People’s Choice Award. The movie was poised to be an awards season darling — or at the very least, a contender.
So far, that prediction has come true. Green Book racked up five Golden Globe nominations, including Best Musical or Comedy and nods for Ali and Mortensen. The movie also received the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor, as well as nominations for Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. But as the weeks have gone on, cracks have appeared in Green Book’s formerly sterling reputation. The movie premiered to underwhelming box office numbers and has been mired in controversy regarding Mortensen's off-screen behaviour, criticism from Dr Shirley's family members, and inclusion of certain problematic narrative tropes.
In the eyes of Green Book's supporters, the movie is an inspiring account of an unlikely friendship that transcends race and class boundaries. Through this lens, Green Book is a balm for our own particularly divided time. Perhaps that's why Green Book has been walking away with so many awards. "A film that really speaks to us coming together and breaking down stereotypes and the way we view one another was really appreciated," Susan Koch, the director of Virginia’s Middleburg Film Festival, where Green Book won Best Narrative Film, told The Washington Post.
Yet a number of critics have picked apart the dynamics of Shirley and Vallelonga's friendship, as well as the movie's depiction of the Green Book itself. Let's unpack the criticism.
Controversy One: The movie's erasure of the Green Book itself
For a movie named after Green Books, Green Book hardly explains what they are. Published from 1937 to 1966, the Negro Motorist Green Book was an essential document for any black individual travelling throughout the country — not just the deep south, as the movie implies.
The book, which was created by mail carrier Victor Hugo Green, detailed the restaurants, stores, beauty shops, hotels and private "tourist homes" (in the case of small towns that had no hotels available to black people) that were welcoming to black travellers. Green Books also helped travellers avoid "sundown towns", which had laws prohibiting black people from being on the road at night. By carrying a Green Book, black travellers were able to avoid embarrassment and danger.
That Green Books were even needed is a travesty, of which Green was acutely aware. "There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment," Green wrote in his introduction to the 1949 edition.
In a piece for Vox, Alissa Wilkinson points out that while Green Book makes a nod to the document in its title, the movie never acknowledges the Green Book's weighty history. "That’s ultimately why Green Book feels wrongheaded to me, no matter how well-intentioned: The movie clearly exhibits Hollywood’s unfortunate tendency to elide reality when making movies about historical racism. It takes the name of an important artefact of history, one whose very existence was a result of prejudice and entrenched white supremacy, and makes it the basis for a broad comedy," Wilkinson writes, also pointing out that Vallelonga and Shirley never actually speak about the Green Book in the movie.
This sentiment is echoed through other critical responses to the movie. Shadow and Act, a website dedicated to black pop culture and entertainment, begins its review by mentioning the travel guide's notable absence: "In Farrelly's Green Book, black people don't even touch the Green Book, let alone talk about its vital importance to their lives." In her review on Slashfilm, Candice Frederick pauses on the moment Vallelonga tosses the book in the back of the car as representative of the movie's problematic treatment of the Green Book: "A seminal item in black history is trivialised and hijacked by a white man who has zero reverence for it, and because of that, the audience is given no reason to have any either." According to these reviewers, the all-white creative team behind Green Book did not adequately pay tribute to the the artefact's weighty meaning.
Controversy Two: The Viggo Mortensen problem
In November 2018, Viggo Mortensen brought another layer of controversy to an already controversial movie. The slip-up came during a post-screening discussion in Los Angeles. While speaking about racial progress in America since the '60s (especially regarding hate speech), Mortensen used the n-word in full. "For instance, no one says n— anymore," Mortensen said. In a tweet, journalist Dick W. Schulz described the immediate change in the theatre's atmosphere following Mortensen's slip-up: "The oxygen immediately left the room."
Mortensen has since apologised profusely. In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, Mortensen said: "In making the point that many people casually used the 'N' word at the time in which the movie’s story takes place, in 1962, I used the full word. Although my intention was to speak strongly against racism, I have no right to even imagine the hurt that is caused by hearing that word in any context, especially from a white man. I do not use the word in private or in public. I am very sorry that I did use the full word last night, and will not utter it again."
Mahershala Ali, Mortensen's co-star, joined the discourse with a statement of his own. "However well-intended or intellectual the conversation may have been, it wasn’t appropriate for Viggo to say the n-word," Ali wrote. "An excellent and poignant thought was unfortunately overshadowed by voicing the word in its fullness. Which for me, is always hurtful."
However, Ali made it clear that he fully accepts his co-star's apology. "Knowing his intention was to express that removing the n-word from your vocabulary doesn’t necessarily disqualify a person as a racist or participating in actions or thoughts that are bigoted, I can accept and embrace his apology," Ali wrote.
Controversy Three: Does Green Book even depict a true story?
Dr Shirley's family doesn't seem to think so. After seeing the movie, Maurice Shirley, Don's only brother, described feeling "furious" in a letter to the press — especially regarding Green Book's depiction of the Shirley family. In the movie, Don states he's not in touch with his brothers. But according to Maurice, "[A]t that point in 1962, he had three living brothers with whom he was always in contact." On the other hand, Vallelonga's family is given ample screen time in the movie (perhaps because Vallelonga's son is a co-writer).
The Shirley family also disputes the entire premise of the movie, which is that Shirley and Vallelonga were ever friends at all. "It was an employer-employee relationship," Patricia Shirley, Don's sister-in-law, said during an interview with Shadow and Act. Maurice also clarified how Vallelonga and Shirley's relationship ended.
"He fired Tony," Maurice told Shadow and Act. "Which is consistent with the many firings he did with all of his chauffeurs over time…Tony would not open the door, he would not take any bags, he would take his [chauffeur’s] cap off when Donald got out of the car, and several times Donald would find him with the cap off, and confronted him. When you hear that Tony had been with him for 18 months, I can assure you, no chauffeur lasted with my brother for 18 months."
In fact, Shirley never wanted this movie to be made. When Nick Vallelonga, Tony's son, approached Shirley with the idea of a movie years ago, Edwin Shirley III, Shirley's nephew, recalled how his uncle "flatly refused". Shirley feared he would have no control over his appearance in the movie. Having seen the movie, Edwin says he finally understands his uncle's hesitance. "I feel terrible that I was actually trying to urge him to do this in the 1980s, because everything that he objected to back then has come true now," he told Shadow and Act.
Following their very public disavowal of Green Book, Ali apologised to the Shirley family. Ali called Maurice on the phone. "What he said was, 'If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry. I did the best I could with the material I had. I was not aware that there were close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character'," Edwin told Shadow and Act. The Shirley family was not consulted during the making of Green Book.
Controversy Four: Green Book doesn't tell Dr Shirley's story
Dr Don Shirley may have been the musical prodigy, but Tony Vallelonga is clearly the main character of Green Book (and Mortensen, not Ali, the one who was nominated for the Best Actor Golden Globe). In an article for IndieWire, Tambay Obensen argues that Green Book employs the "magical negro" trope in Shirley's relationship to Vallelonga. According to Obensen, Shirley "exists almost entirely to help transform his white companion on a quest toward salvation." Shirley, ever wise and even-keeled, is there to teach Vallelonga how to write a love letter to his wife, and ultimately how to shake his prejudice.
This ties back in to the difference in the movie's portrayals of Vallelonga and Shirley's families. Whereas Vallelonga has a well-developed personal life, Shirley remains a mystery. Though Vallelonga is technically Shirley's employee, Shirley is there to serve Vallelonga's narrative arc.
Controversy Five: Nick Vallelonga's resurfaced anti-Muslim tweets
Back in November 2015, Green Book scriptwriter (and Golden Globe winner) Nick Vallelonga expressed support for Donald Trump's debunked claim that he witnessed Muslim people cheering on 9/11. The conspiracy began when Trump said at a rally in Alabama, "I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering."
In the third official statement associated with this movie (so far), Vallelonga said: "I want to apologise. I spent my life trying to bring this story of overcoming differences and finding common ground to the screen, and I am incredibly sorry to everyone associated with 'Green Book. I especially deeply apologise to the brilliant and kind Mahershala Ali, and all members of the Muslim faith, for the hurt I have caused."
Vallelonga has since deleted his Twitter account.