How Green Book falls into the same traps

Green Book is clearly a film that’s enjoyable to watch – there’s a reason why the film has a 93 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, not to mention the 79 percent fresh rating from critics. But the film has still rubbed many the wrong way for falling into the same traps many other Hollywood films about race have fallen into.

First of all, the film is from Tony’s point of view instead of Dr. Shirley’s. The decision to tell the story from Tony’s point of view is the work of writer-director Farrelly and Vallelonga. But with a story that includes The Negro Motorist Green Book, a book written by black mailman Victor Hugo Green specifically for black Americans traveling throughout the country, you’d think Green Book would have black lives at its center. Instead, many critics have complained about white fragility is still at the heart of this film. The movie is all about Tony’s journey toward recognizing black humanity.

Some critics didn’t hold back on their disgust with the film.

“The new movie Green Book sets up, with a pristine precision, a scenario that was already ridiculous when it was presented in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, more than half a century ago: the acceptance by white people of a black protagonist whose talents and achievements are exceptional, whose manners are elegant, whose record is spotless, and whose résumé and connections are stamped ‘high class,’” wrote The New Yorker’s Richard Brody.

“…Green Book is perfectly adequate for what it is: middlebrow Oscar bait that plays it as safe as can be,” wrote Inkoo Kang for Slate. “We get much too little about Donald’s feelings about performing at mansions, including former plantations, filled with white people who worship his talents yet treat him as beneath them…We’re also cheated out of learning about his relationships to other black people, other than the obvious complaint that he’s thought of as ‘not black enough.’”

Dr. Shirley’s family have also come out against the film, saying that it mischaracterizes Dr. Shirley and his relationship with his family.

“There was no due diligence done to afford my family and my deceased uncle the respect of properly representing him, his legacy, his worth and the excellence in which he operated and the excellence in which he lived,” said Carol Shirley Kimble, Dr. Shirley’s niece, to 1A Movie Club in a voicemail. “It’s once again a depiction of a white man’s version of a Black man’s life. My uncle was an incredibly proud man and an incredibly accomplished man, as are the majority of people in my family. And to depict him as less than, and to depict him and take away from him and make the story about a hero of a white man for this incredibly accomplished Black man is insulting, at best.”

Green Book Trailer

The family has also come out more forcefully against the film’s lack of research in a comprehensive interview by Shadow and Act’s Brooke Obie. In the interview, various family members call the film anything from “a symphony of lies” to “100 percent wrong.”

The film asserts that Shirley was estranged from his family because of his sexuality as well as black culture, two things his living family members refute with personal anecdotes to picture evidence. For instance, Shirley was his youngest brother Maurice’s best man at his wedding. He stopped one of his musical tours to attend a nephew’s untimely funeral. He took his other nephew, Edwin, on tour with him for nine days as they traversed Cincinnati and Chicago. The family also asserts that, unlike what the film suggests, Shirley and Vallelonga were never friends; it was only a professional relationship.

When Nick Vallelonga, Tony Vallelonga’s son, was shopping around the idea for a movie based on his father and Shirley’s travels, Shirley continuously refused to give his blessing because he felt a film would never get his life story correct. At the time, Edwin said he was trying to convince his uncle to take the opportunity, but now, he says he completely understands his uncle’s reticence.

“God knows, this is the reason that he never wanted to have his life portrayed on screen,” Edwin told Obie. “I now understand why, and I feel terrible that I was actually trying to urge him to do this in the 1980s, because everything that he objected to back then has come true now.”

Since the film’s release, Mahershala Ali has apologized to the Shirley family, saying he wasn’t made aware that Shirley’s family was still around to tell his story. The family believes Ali was misled.

In our opinion,” said Maurice to Essence’s Britni Danielle, “[Ali]’s been duped.”

“We are very proud of him,” Shirley’s sister-in-law and Maurice’s wife Patricia Shirley said of Ali.

“In no way would we ever steal his joy for his recognition because he is an accomplished actor and we respect his ability and his position.” She added that they aren’t “angry or vindictive;” instead, she said, they are “disappointed” with the film.

Mortensen has yet to make such amends; instead, he believes the Vallelonga family are being patient throughout the controversy, as if they are true victims.

“[Writer] Nick Vallelonga has shown admirable restraint in the face of some accusations and some claims –including from a couple of family members – that have been unjustified, uncorroborated and basically unfair, that have been countered by other people who knew Doc Shirley well,” he said to Variety’s Marc Malkin. “There is evidence that there was not the connection that [the family members] claimed there was with him, and perhaps there’s some resentment.”

green book director interview

Not only is that uncouth (to say the least), but it’s a statement that re-centers the film around whiteness and white privilege instead of around Shirley’s experience as a minority living within a prejudiced system. The focus for Mortensen and the film is the rehabilitation of whiteness for a white audience, not an exploration of the racist systems in place that both embolden white ignorance and perpetuate black pain.

This becomes even more apparent now that a new controversy has surfaced; Nick himself has become the center of allegations of anti-Muslim sentiment, including his agreement with a false anti-Muslim rumor from Donald Trump.

So here we are, still reeling from the Best Picture win awarded to Green Book. Once again, it appears as if blackness and black experiences are reimagined and appropriated to tell a story Hollywood loves to tell over and over; the story of the black American, but through the white American’s eyes. Like the Shirley family, we all should be disappointed that Shirley’s life story was railroaded to continue the American tradition of white privilege in storytelling. Hopefully one day, the entertainment world decides to rid itself of this fairy tale once and for all.

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