‘Green Book’ and the stories Americans like to tell ourselves
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).
“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.”