Yinka Olatunbosun sifts through the controversies and criticisms around the Hollywood movie, Green Book, to find merits for its prestigious Oscar win in the Best Picture category
Released in the US on November 18, 2018, the movie, Green Book, was born with a fistful of criticisms. The 130-minute movie, amidst rave reviews, scored one of its sour points from the family of Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), the late African-American pianist whose story formed the spine of the narrative. The family members claimed that they were not contacted until the production of the movie which accounts for its historical inaccuracies.
Written by Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie, the story was told from the perspective of a New York city bouncer, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallenlonga (Viggo Mortensen) who worked at a famous nightclub, Copacabana before it was closed for renovations for two months. In dire need of another source of income, Vallelonga was engaged by Doc Shirley’s recording company to travel with the pianist on a music tour as his chauffeur-bodyguard.
Vallelonga’s son, Nick played a significant role in the plot development as he recounted the part of history relayed to him by his father. Naturally, oral tradition has its perils, some of which are omissions and exaggerations.
Shirley’s family members are of the view that the movie’s plot exaggerated the relationship between the pianist and his driver, claiming that it was not a friendship but an employer-employee relationship. Maybe a movie director is not under obligation to tell the story precisely the way it happened. After all, a movie is the director’s account of the truth. If Green Book had been a documentary movie, then this argument about fidelity to historical truth would have been credible. Still, precautions are issued in a movie’s opening montage in form of disclaimer when the true characterisation cannot be established due to lack of facts.
In reality, the road-trip drama is a delightful visual odyssey into the period of stiff racial segregation in the US. The movie is named after The Negro Motorist Green Book, which is a guidebook of the period for African-American travellers written by Victor Hugo Green. It is a directory for motels and restaurants that would accept people of colour.
Vallelonga negotiated for a $125 per week with Doc Shirley whom he had thought to be a medical doctor at first. But upon learning that he was a musician, he was visibly confused but covered up quickly. He seemed eager to get the job in spite of having a coloured boss but only on his terms. He would not handle Doc’s luggage nor will he shine his shoes.
Critics have argued that the storyline is not exactly original as it looks like a rehash of Driving Miss Daisy, a 1987 comedy starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. There is no gainsaying that the screenplay is heavy on remarkable dialogue that can make a cinema goer call out for a rewind. Embodied in the Oscar-winning screenplay is its use of language to delineate the social status of the two lead characters which is breath-taking. Mahershala Ali enunciated those lines with the ease of some honey-coated tongue while Vallenloga struggled with his egocentric diction as they faced everyday challenges of survival in the two-month long trip.
Some members of the black community were unimpressed by the Green Book’s point of view in racial discourse. They see Vallenlonga as a “white man saviour”, rescuing Doc Shirley from impossible situations. Other critics wonder why the black actor has to be fixed in a supporting role although Ali won a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar for this impressive role. The producers of Green Book had stated during promotional interviews that they did not set out to pass a message through the movie. However, the themes of love, racism and reconciliation could not have been buried under the satire that informed the societal archetypes in the drama.
But the movie is not just about racism as it illuminates the plight of an educated African-American who may have paid for school but cannot buy class. With all his finesse and outstanding music career, Doc Shirley suffers social dislocation- not fitting into the white upper-class or the black neighbourhood. With slavery and racial segregation policies buried in the annals of history, the American society still wrestles with identity crisis, disguised racism and negative stereotypes of the African-American.
Green Book was produced on a $23m budget but grossed $187.9m at the box office. It beats the imagination of critics to see this seemingly simplistic movie grab the coveted Best Picture Award at the just concluded Oscars in the same category with fire-brand movies like Black Panther, A Star is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, Roma, BlacKKKlansman, Vice and The Favourite. Best Picture Award is usually the last announced at the Oscars and is considered as the evening’s apogee. Some found the win unacceptable, secretly wishing for the courage of Kanye West to knock the plaque off the hands holding it.
Away from all the primary criteria for selecting best picture, every one understands in principle that a good picture, without words tells a story. The scenes in the movie that featured Doc Shirley and Vallenlonga communicated volumes of underlying subject matters. The mere sight of Doc Shirley at the backseat of a vintage car with the Italian-American Vallenlonga on wheels offers visual commentaries on racism. The geological details captured in each frame which even found their way into the lines in one of the letter writing scenes Vallenlonga are desserts to the whole meal narrative.
The Oscars turned out to be a man with many wives who needs just one of them to accompany him to an A-list event. All the wives dressed up like barbies, seductively; some a little too overdone. In the end, the man picks the modestly-clad wife. Green Book is just that modestly dished movie with well-timed soundtracks, enjoyable story, perfect sound quality, impeccable lines, believable actors and a long veil of enviable success.