‘Green Book’ and the stories Americans like to tell ourselves

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali star in a scene from the movie "Green Book." (CNS photo/Universal Studios)Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali star in a scene from the movie "Green Book." (CNS photo/Universal Studios)

If Hollywood’s awards season could be characterized as having an overriding “spirit” it would best be described as “self-congratulatory,” certainly not “apologetic.” But that is just what Mahershala Ali has been with regard to his portrayal of Dr. Donald Shirley in “Green Book.”

The actor, who won his first Academy Award just two years ago for his role in “Moonlight,” has been nominated once again this year in the best supporting actor category. He has already won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA awards this season for his performance as Shirley—the virtuoso jazz and classical pianist who embarks on a tour of the Deep South in 1962 with his driver/bodyguard Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen).

Advertisement

“Green Book” is a sweet lullaby when what is really needed is a wake up call.

The actor’s apology came on the heels of learning that Shirley’s remaining family members—Shirley died in 2013 at age 86—called the film a “symphony of lies” that distorted the nature of the relationship between Shirley and Vallelonga and was just another example of a white man offering up a version of a black man’s life. (The script was co-written by Vallelonga’s son.) Shirley’s niece, Carol Shirley Kimble, said that to “make the story about a hero of a white man for this incredibly accomplished black man is insulting, at best.”

“If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry,” Ali told Shirley’s surviving brother, Maurice, and his nephew, Edwin Shirley III, who recounted their phone conversation. “I did the best I could with the material I had.”

Doing the best with the material he had feels less like an excuse in this case than a concise summation of “Green Book.” Ali and his co-star Mortensen are among the finest actors working today; they consistently elevate everything they are involved in. But even their talents struggle to transcend the problems presented by the material they are given here.

The film is set against a deep and complex history of race in the United States whose repercussions continue to be felt.

“Green Book” is not telling a story in a vacuum. It is set against a deep and complex history of race in the United States whose repercussions continue to be felt. At a time when our national discourse is too often reduced to outrage and trading in facile—and dialogue-ending— labels like “racist,” a far more helpful conversation would be to take a clear-eyed look at the stories we like to tell ourselves in America. By that standard, “Green Book” is a sweet lullaby when what is really needed is a wake up call.

And none of this begins to address the film’s more fundamental and vexing questions of accuracy.

In my conversations, I have noticed a generational divide with older viewers loving “Green Book” while those under 40 seem more skeptical. My sense is that skepticism is, in part, borne out of younger generation’s well-honed ability to parse media and messaging with a more critical eye. There are downsides to this media savvy, but understanding who is controlling the narrative and their agenda is not one of them.

Is “Green Book” entertaining? Yes. Does it effectively pull at viewers’ heartstrings at times? Yes, human beings are hardwired to react to stories of reconciliation and connection across divides. Christians need to look no further than the parable of the Good Samaritan for proof of this. Catholics in particular place a high premium on this phenomenon with the concept of communion. But communion achieved through manipulation or deception is not true communion at all.

Communion achieved through manipulation or deception is not true communion at all.

Perhaps the most important question is whether the depiction of Shirley’s and Vallelonga’s friendship is even true. We will never know for sure because the people it is based on both died in 2013. We do know that surviving family members on both sides are in stark disagreement on that issue. Once you scratch beneath the surface of that disagreement it is difficult to look at “Green Book” in the same light.

The danger is that by pasteurizing a story of a friendship across ethnic and racial boundaries, we continue to anaesthetize ourselves to the incredibly complex narrative of race in America and replace it with simplistic heartwarming anecdotes (“The Education of Little Tree,” anyone?).

It is a little like saying you are concerned about the environmental and social impacts of factory farming and then order the salad option off the menu at McDonald’s to salve your conscience and convince yourself that you are eating nutritiously. Is it tasty? Is it potentially nutritious? Perhaps, but let’s not kid ourselves. The meal is wrapped in endless layers of a much larger and more problematic enterprise to say the least.

In 2019 the movie business is in a battle for relevance unlike anything it has experienced before. Sales of video games—an overwhelmingly young demographic—more than double movie box office sales. The #OscarsSoWhite protests of 2015 as well as this year’s quickly launched, then scratched, idea for a “Best Popular Movie” award category—not to mention competition with endless amounts of great streaming content—are all indications of how out of touch and out of answers the motion picture industry has become.

The fact that “Green Book” is a very strong contender for Best Picture this year while movies like Boots Riley’s excellent “Sorry to Bother You” received no recognition at all tells me that there will be more apologies in Oscars’ future.

Correction, Feb. 16: This review initially misstated the title of “Green Book” as “The Green Book.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
thatkenguy@gmail.com
5 months 1 week ago

I am one of the "older" Americans who watched and benefited from this movie. I became a teenager in 1960, and watched the drama of racial strife as I matured into adulthood. I know the horrors that made the Green Book a part of black history, the victories and defeats that shook our nation, and the tainted history of the fifty years since the cataclysm of the sixties. I am not blinded by the slick story telling of the movie industry. I also am not so naive that I think this movie is a true account of the events on which it is based. Rather, it is an illustration of the moments of revelation that exposure to racial hatred forced upon both blacks and whites of that era. While our generation did not end discrimination, it gathered many of the moments this movie illustrates to begin a determined, lifelong effort to address the problem. We who appreciate this movie are not naive, and those who recognize its limits are not so sophisticated. I liked it, and I hope its message of hope rings true in others.

Bill McGarvey
5 months 1 week ago

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, thatkenguy. You say that you're "not so naive that I think this movie is a true account of the events on which it is based. Rather, it is an illustration of the moments of revelation that exposure to racial hatred forced upon both blacks and whites of that era." It may be well and good for you to take that from it, but that is not how the movie is being put forward to the public. To present it as based on a true story and then learn that there are serious discrepancies in terms of the truth of the portrayal is a large problem in and of itself. To add in the complicated racial dynamics only deepens the issues around it. I also believe that messages of hope are good but when those messages are grounded in fraudulent claims, it's a far more cynical, hope-crushing matter.

james smith
5 months ago

Amazing Article. He is such a great Hollywood actor. Check for high quality film jackets

Annette Magjuka
5 months ago

Thank you for this important article. I agree with you 100%.

Michael Myers
5 months ago

"Based on a True Story" is not a statement of faithful adherence to all the facts of a story. In fact it's the key loophole Hollywood uses to take a basic story set-up and go in whatever direction they think will make a successful film. These 2 guys in fact knew other: that's all they need to satisfy "based on a true story." As for the Oscars, they have become irrelevant. While artistic merit is still a factor, the nominations and winners are based on PC and identity considerations. It's why the ratings have precipitously declined and will continue to do so. They couldn't even find someone willing to host this year and ratings will decline again. The Oscar status of a film has little impact on box office.

JOHN KEHOE
5 months ago

Comedy differs in taste. For me Saturday Night Live works hard, but mostly is not funny. When the story itself creates laughs, that makes for comedy, as in City Island, My Cousin Vinny and Waking Ned Devine. When AARP Movies for Grownups awarded Viggo Mortensen best actor, and Green Book best picture, my wife and I cheered. The best comedy we’ve seen in years got its due.

In 1962 two polar opposites, the world-class pianist Don Shirley, sophisticated, aloof, and black, and Italian American nightclub “fixer” Tony Sip (Vallelonga), prejudiced, uncouth, and gregarious, travel through the South on a concert tour—the perfect set-up for two very fine actors to entertain us. Based on the reasonably true story of two people who became friends, as viewed by Vallelonga’s son who did the work to bring it to life, it’s a human story of learning and friendship; and delightfully funny. The movie charms. It avoids the hard edge of anger (and sex and profanity) that seemingly must characterize winning movies these days. Can’t we just enjoy it for what it is—a wonderful setup, full of laughs, played by great actors, illustrating a demeaning racial culture, that ends in a lovely way. Human, hilarious and feel-good--what’s wrong with that?

JOHN KEHOE
5 months ago

Comedy differs in taste. For me Saturday Night Live works hard, but mostly is not funny. When the story itself creates laughs, that makes for comedy, as in City Island, My Cousin Vinny and Waking Ned Devine. When AARP Movies for Grownups awarded Viggo Mortensen best actor, and Green Book best picture, my wife and I cheered. The best comedy we’ve seen in years got its due.

In 1962 two polar opposites, the world-class pianist Don Shirley, sophisticated, aloof, and black, and Italian American nightclub “fixer” Tony Sip (Vallelonga), prejudiced, uncouth, and gregarious, travel through the South on a concert tour—the perfect set-up for two very fine actors to entertain us. Based on the reasonably true story of two people who became friends, as viewed by Vallelonga’s son who did the work to bring it to life, it’s a human story of learning and friendship; and delightfully funny. The movie charms. It avoids the hard edge of anger (and sex and profanity) that seemingly must characterize winning movies these days. Can’t we just enjoy it for what it is—a wonderful setup, full of laughs, played by great actors, illustrating a demeaning racial culture, that ends in a lovely way. Human, hilarious and feel-good--what’s wrong with that?

Bill McGarvey
5 months ago

Thanks for your comments, John. You mention that

"Can’t we just enjoy it for what it is—a wonderful setup, full of laughs, played by great actors, illustrating a demeaning racial culture, that ends in a lovely way. Human, hilarious and feel-good--what’s wrong with that?"

On the most fundamental level, I guess I would be better able to accept that if I had the sense that the story reflected the truth of the relationship it presents but the Shirley family clearly contests that notion. It's problematic to have a story on friendship across race in America like this told exclusively through the lens of the white character.

I especially liked what Dr. Shirley's nephew Edwin Shirley said in an email to TIME, published in a post on Feb 13. He referenced a line in the film in which Donald Shirley tells Tony that he can do better. “For me, that was the most authentic scene in Green Book, and it’s my response to why I’ve been critical of it. In spite of its box office success, the awards it’s won and may yet win—they could have done better. Given what, and who they had to work with, they could have made a richer, more nuanced character of him, and the film.”

JOHN KEHOE
5 months ago

Thank you Bill for your thoughtful comment. Perhaps had the Shirley's been allowed to participate, the movie might have been better, but it was Nick Vallelonga who did the work over the years, and I think has as much claim to the real story--especially a movie version--as Shirley's family. But I'm just saying, take the movie for what it is rather than apply a litmus test that demeans the film for what it isn't. Also, I like reading your commentaries and generally applaud them. Peace, Jack.

Bill McGarvey
5 months ago

Thank you, Jack.

Carmen Villafañe
4 months 3 weeks ago

I concur with those who believe the movie is a thought provoking form of entertainment that can't encompass every nuance or angle of each character's life. Constructive criticism from the Shirley family is substantiated in their experience and potentially calls for a documentary that reveals those truths. As a person raised in the Deep South, I struggled beyond what was happening in the movie due to my own memories of situations and the realities we lived during highly tense times during the late 60's & 70's regarding race issues. My family and I are Catholic and Hispanic, so we endured brushes with this, as well. I respect this review, but think the movie reflects many valuable truths, especially those that expose the very human responses of both main characters and their/our many layers. I'll quote Shirley's words that spoke deeply to me in terms of this conversation, "Genius is not enough. It takes courage to change people's hearts." I was certainly encouraged by the film. Peace to all!

Bill McGarvey
4 months 3 weeks ago

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Carmen.

Advertisement
More: Films / Race

The latest from america

Charlie Sykes: This is where the G.O.P.’s Faustian bargain has led. Their moral compromises and tolerance of President Trump‘s racism have become a habit.
Charles SykesJuly 21, 2019
Pope Francis proclaimed that the former Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston can no longer participate in the liturgy and commands him to make amends for the harm he caused.
What started as a "Gilmore Girls"-themed trip through New England gave me and my parents far more than we had expected.
Detail from a Latin Missal (iStock/wwing)
Latin is often seen as an outdated tradition, but language student Grace Spiewak writes that it can foster pride in our global church, reminding us of our unique and complicated history.
Grace SpiewakJuly 19, 2019