Green Book: Ignorance in Virtuosity (8 Minute Read)
Updated: Feb 6, 2020
If you haven’t heard (you probably have), Green Book walked away with the championship belt this past Sunday, winning Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. For some (my mother) this comes as no surprise, citing the unpredictability of the Oscars year in and year out as we usher in a new, more diverse academy. For others (myself), they were just left disappointed with the decision.
Green Book follows the true story of bouncer and Italian-American, Tony ‘Lipp’ Vallelonga, who is hired to chauffer Don Shirley, an exceptionally talented musician and queer black man, as he tours across the Jim Crow south in the early 1960’s. The film is primarily shot from Vallelonga’s perspective as he teaches Shirley about “his own peoples music”, fried chicken, and how to take life less seriously. What was no doubt virtuously intended to be a boon for conversations about race and togetherness has brought about other issues. The film’s purview exists to remind us that we are all supposed to love each other, demonstrated through an unlikely friendship in a complicated time; this is ultimately a skin deep thought told through the lens of white man, neglecting a deeper consideration for its potential viewers. Green Book is a story written by Peter Farrelly and Nick Vallelonga, the son of Tony Vallelonga himself. Both men are white. Trailing the already existing convoluted nature of having white men write for a black character is the fact that Shirley’s family has disputed much of what was written in this docudramedy. Vallellonga has debated this point, stating that Shirley told him not to do so. “Dr. Shirley said, ‘I don’t want anything else about me in there.’ He didn’t want to tell me about his family. He could’ve had 10 brothers and sisters, and my father didn’t even know that. He didn’t want me to have information about aspects of his personal life. He granted me the right to tell this story of this time between him and my father, nothing else, and he specifically told me, ‘Don’t contact anyone about me. What I’ll tell you will be enough. No one was there but me and your father, so no one can even give you any information about what happened in that car.’” Shirley’s nephew has called the film “a symphony of lies,” communicating the disdain in not being consulted on the project.
The creation of this film has confirmed that the recurring redemption narrative of a white person learning how to not be racist is a parable we no longer need. It doesn’t serve a purpose and gives white people the opportunity for self-aggrandizement through the story of Tony and Don’s relationship. Traditionally, Hollywood writers have developed the usage of a "white saviour" character as a conduit for stories of race and colour. This can be seen in films like Hidden Figures or Gran Torino where the characters are credited for "saving" the group they were racist towards in the first place.
Farrelly told the Press Association: "It’s a movie for everybody. I know a lot of people have different opinions about it and I like that it’s getting people talking about race because that’s what the movie is supposed to do. Our hearts were in the right place when we made this movie." Although the intention may have been there, I'm not sure much thought was actually put toward making this movie with everybody in mind. My reluctance to accept this film as the Best Picture of 2018 stems from the fact that this was a movie written by white people about the relationship between white and black people, which results in white people feeling good (though likely unintentionally). On some level, it lets us off the hook for our previous transgressions regardless of severity, if only temporarily and cognitively. It reinforces the idea that racism is largely gone today, although it isn't, and can minimize the issues that people of colour still face. That’s why it feels good to watch this film. We can simultaneously compare the atrocities that people formerly faced to how far we've come in our present day situation, all while ridding our minds of our own racism in contrast. To illustrate my point, I will admit I really enjoyed watching this film. The writing is witty and charming at times and can be impactful. The acting is phenomenal and Peter Farrelly has always been quite funny as the writer of all-timers like Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber, two of my favourite comedies. But the complexity in enjoying something created specifically for me dawned on me fairly quickly.
Based on black critics' reviews of the movie, hardly any of them found it enjoyable, and understandably so. Can you imagine being introduced to one of the most unique and underrepresented characters in film history who was a genius composer that lived above Carnegie Hall, was African-American, sat on a literal throne, was queer and then be forced to view the story from the perspective of his racist driver? Despite the rich cultural heritage of Don Shirley, Tony is deemed by the writers as the best vehicle for the story to move forward, diminishing his importance in his own story. My opinion is null here, but I have a tough time imagining a black person sitting down to watch Green Book, enduring two hours of Don Shirley experiencing abuse and torment, for the ending only to result in Shirley sitting down at dinner with Tony’s family as a resolution. Shirley's goal in travelling along the Jim Crowe south was to change race relations and challenge individuals perceptions of who black people were and who they could be. We are repeatedly told through exposition via Oleg, a member of the Don Shirley Trio, that “being genius is not enough, it takes courage to change people's hearts.” We are never shown the change or ripple effects that came from Shirley’s bravery. We are never shown the result of his courage. Instead, in many ways, this becomes a Tony redemption film in which the main character is redeemed through forced experiences with a black person, which is a tough beat in 2019. I understand that things are much more complex than I'm giving them credit for. Nick Vallelonga and Farrelly probably wanted to keep the story from Tony’s perspective as they likely felt more comfortable and respectful in doing so, considering the lineage, but I think it's such a shame to half-tell Shirley’s story without mining his family for more information and asking for their blessing in doing so. If we want to tell an authentic depiction of a person of colour's story, then white characters will likely have little or no place in them (Moonlight, Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, If Beale Street Could Talk).
Much of the confusion from this Oscars decision comes from the clash of new wave academy and old wave traditional academy. The group that voted in The Artist in 2011, arguably one of the most forgettable Best Pictures in Oscars history, is the same group that lifted Green Book to victory. An Oscars that claims it wants to grow, change and become more diverse also claims to want Green Book. From certain perspectives, the resulting decision by the academy could be seen as whitelash, a term coined by CNN commentator Van Jones to describe, in part, why he felt Americans elected Donald Trump as president. The term references a morose past in America where they experience racial progress, which is then followed by a white backlash, or "whitelash." Reconstruction in the 19th century was followed by a century of Jim Crow. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s was followed by President Ronald Reagan and the rise of the religious right. The academy awarding Spike Lee his first Oscar and Green Book winning Best Picture. Sure, the above example is dramatic in comparison, but on a micro level, it rings true for some. It should be noted that the Oscars have made great strides in these past couple of years and even at 2019's award show. Costume designer Ruth Carter won the Oscar for Best Costume and was the first black person to ever win the award. Roma, Black Panther, and BlacKkKlansman all picked up awards throughout the evening.
Lets not forget that what people usually remember is the big prize, Best Picture. Awarding this film Best in Show doesn’t provide us with progression and momentum, it slows us down. It will join the rest of the Oscars alumni in their long and storied history of marked wrongness. In my non-representational experience, I've noticed that older white people love this movie, so it wasn't a huge surprise it won, as the academy is primarily composed of that demographic. My points will be categorized as “being too sensitive,” a classic response for those unwilling to hold themselves accountable in certain situations. In response to this article, some people will ask, “can’t we enjoy anything anymore?” The answer is yes, you can. You just need to be willing to understand other perspectives than your own and the potential impacts that can come from ignorance.
I have an admiration for those who sustain a level of virtuosity in all that they do, but virtuosity can provide a layer of ignorance that paradoxically nullifies its virtue, if applied incorrectly. We can continue to cite the positive intentions that Vallelonga and Farrelly had in telling this story, but you know what they say about good intentions.