The curious case of ‘Green Book’ and Hollywood’s representation of race relations
Peter Farrelly’s 2018 film Green Book won three Academy Awards out of five nominations, including the award for Best Picture. It follows the story of Don Shirley, an African-American pianist and his Italian-American driver as they made their way through the racist south of America during a 1960s on a concert tour. When the film first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018, it was met with glowing critical praise and a People’s Choice Award.
Time hasn’t been kind to Green Book. Opening to underwhelming box office numbers and struggling with complaints about some of its problematic narrative themes as well as off-screen antics, the reputation of Farrelly’s award-winning drama has been subjected to a lot of criticism. Once heralded as a fine example of two people defying race and class conflicts in order to establish a human bond, Green Book has been accused of capitalising on race politics and erasing parts of the history of the Black community.
Don Shirley’s family did not approve of the musician’s depiction in the film. Green Book insists that Shirley was estranged from his family and from the Black community but, according to the family, that simply wasn’t true. Dr. Maurice Shirley, Donald’s brother, called it a “symphony of lies”.
The relationship that Shirley shared with Tony Vallelonga has been called into question as well. In an interview outtake from the 2011 documentary Lost Bohemia, Shirley said, “I trusted him implicitly. Tony, not only was he my driver. We never had an employer-employee relationship. We got to be friendly with one another.” These claims have been refuted by his family.
“He fired Tony,” Maurice said. “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.”
The Actual “Green Book”
In publication from 1937 to 1966, the Negro Motorist Green Book was the most important guide for any Black travellers. Created by the mail career Victor Hugo Green, the book listed restaurants, stores and hotels that welcomed Black tourists. It even outlined the areas that they should stay away from, places that enforced racial discrimination. It is a tragedy that these books were even required but they still remain a vital part of an entire community’s history. However, Farrelly’s eponymous film hardly acknowledges its historical significance.
In the film, Shirley and Vallelonga never actually talk about the book and, when it does appear, it is reduced to the status of a prop that is mostly used by Vallelonga. Critics quickly pointed out how this is an example of Hollywood denying the brutal reality of past injustices in order to mould the narrative a certain way. Despite their best intentions, this was perceived as an attempt to erase an essential example of a prejudiced history.
A Problematic Perspective
Green Book’s main character is Tony Vallelonga and it is through his eyes that we pay tribute to the musical prodigy of Don Shirley. Farrelly has insisted that the film was only meant to be about Vallelonga and Shirley’s journey but its representation of Shirley isn’t quite flattering. It almost feels as though he only exists to help his prejudiced white companion go on a journey of self-improvement and reformation. He uses his wisdom and intellect to teach Vallelonga how to write and become a better person.
The film also focuses on Vallelonga’s family life but does nothing to talk about Shirley’s family. The musician was active in the civil rights movement, friends with Dr. King, present for the march in Selma, and supported many Black musicians but Green Book doesn’t touch on any of that. When Shirley’s nephew, Edwin, first saw the film, he expressed his disappointment regarding his uncle’s portrayal, “That was very hurtful,” Edwin said. “That’s just 100% wrong.”
To make matters worse, Vigo Mortensen (who played Tony Vallelonga) said the “N-word” during a screening in November of 2018 in order to show how the times have changed. It was in poor taste, and he apologised, but it further complicated the troubled legacy of Green Book. The apology was accepted by Mahershala Ali but people on the internet were not so quick to forgive the actor.
Overlooked Works by the Black Community
One filmmaker who was left fuming after Green Book won the Best Picture award was the acclaimed director Spike Lee. His film BlacKkKlansman was also nominated for the top prize but when he heard that Farrelly’s work had won the Oscar, he attempted to leave the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. His 1989 masterpiece Just Do The Right Thing (which won the Academy Award for Original Screenplay in 1990) had also been snubbed in the Best Picture category in favour of Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy.
“I’m snakebit. I mean every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose. But they changed the seating arrangement!” Lee told reporters. “I thought I was courtside at the (Madison Square) Garden, and the ref made a bad call.”
It is a travesty that the Academy prefers “whitewashed” narratives over powerful representations of the Black community’s struggles like Do The Right Thing. Even though the film did not win the coveted prize, history will always remember Spike Lee’s bold vision. The same cannot be said about Green Book.