'Green Book' Criticism Is About Holding Hollywood Accountable, Not Finger-Pointing

The Peter Farrelly-directed movie is what happens when filmmakers are preoccupied with a story's optics, not its details.

It’s baffling, to say the least, that the racially tone-deaf “Green Book” all but swept the Golden Globes. In a year that gave us groundbreaking films about black people (“If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Sorry to Bother You”), Peter Farrelly’s buddy comedy/road trip movie feels like a remnant of a bygone era of Hollywood.

But here we are. 

Conversations about the movie’s merits aside (you can read what I previously wrote here), something has become abundantly clear in the wake of the success of “Green Book”, especially at Sunday’s Globes: the blatant unwillingness of its makers to thoughtfully engage with criticism of their film. 

“Green Book” claims to tell the true story of pioneering African-American concert pianist Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali), who in the 1960s hired Italian-American New York City bouncer Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) to drive and escort him during a performance tour of the Deep South. According to the film, written by Vallelonga’s son Nick (as well as writer Brian Currie and Farrelly), the odd couple (Shirley is deeply cultured, Vallelonga aggressively laid back) eventually bonded during the course of the tour and became lifelong friends, despite their vastly different backgrounds. 

There’s a problem with this narrative, though. In December, a report by Shadow and Act revealed that members of Shirley’s family have taken issue with several aspects of “Green Book,” which is based primarily on the letters Vallelonga sent to his wife while on tour with Shirley, as well as audio tapes Vallelonga’s son recorded of his father and Shirley. 

Shirley’s brother, Maurice Shirley, and the pianist’s nephew, Edwin Shirley III, termed the movie’s script a “symphony of lies.” They challenged its insinuation that Don Shirley was ashamed of his blackness, casting doubt on framing him and Vallelonga as becoming close friends and disputing the notion that their relative was entirely estranged from his family. 

Worse, Edwin and Maurice said that no one from the film reached out to the Shirley family during the production of “Green Book.” According to them, the family didn’t even know a film was being made about their relative until Shirley’s great-niece, Yvonne Shirley, posted on Instagram about it.

Maurice echoed his criticism to NPR, prompting co-lead Ali to personally apologize to the Shirley family and publicly acknowledge their disappointment. But it seems that he, the only black actor at the forefront of this movie, is alone in shouldering the burden of this controversy as Hollywood’s awards season kicks into high gear.

Nick Vallelonga has insisted that the story he helped craft is true, and Mortensen (who, by the way, recently used the word “nigger” during promotion of the film) outrightly dismissed the Shirley family’s complaints.

Meanwhile, Farrelly has defended his efforts to find the Shirley family, which he told Vanity Fair turned up no responses. “I wish I could have talked to the family earlier,” Farrelly said. “But I don’t think it would have changed the story, because we were talking about a two-month period [of Vallelonga and Shirley on the road together]. Those were the only people that were there... I would have just let [the family] know as a courtesy that we are making this movie.”

In his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, Ali acknowledged the “brilliant” Don Shirley and thanked his co-stars, colleagues and wife. When Farrelly took the stage, he rambled about the synopsis of his movie, and deflected any criticisms of it by emphasizing a need to find hope in “divided times.”

“If [Tony Vallelonga and Don Shirley] can find common ground,” Farrelly said, “we all can. All we have to do is talk and to not judge people by their differences, but to look for what we have in common.” 

Hollywood has a history of cannibalizing black stories, of distorting them and never facing the consequences. The success of “Green Book” is a stark example of that.

“Green Book” is what happens when filmmakers are preoccupied with a story’s optics, but not its details. In a November interview with Vulture, when asked about how he attempted to avoid the “white savior complex” trope in his film, Farrelly said: “I opened this movie up to everybody, specifically Mahershala Ali and Octavia Spencer and the whole crew for that matter; we had a very diverse crew. The first day of the shoot, I just said, ‘Hey, if anybody sees anything that can improve this, or something that’s not ringing true, or something that’s bullshit, or something that’s not right, just let me know.’ And people did come forward.”

That Farrelly recruited and took into consideration the opinions of his black performers and fellow filmmakers should be commended. It’s an important step in making sure that movies tell honest and nuanced stories about black lives. But to use the presence of black people on set or on screen to deflect from the very real criticisms of how the film still fails is, to say the least, unfortunate. 

Hollywood has a history of cannibalizing black stories, of distorting them and never facing the consequences. The success of “Green Book” is a stark example of that; despite its title, which is a nod to the guidebook that black travelers used to determine which businesses were safe to patronize in the 1930s through 1960s ― the movie was written specifically from the skewed perspective of a white man. Yet none of the white men involved in the making of this movie have faced the consequences of that decision.

In fact, backstage after the Best Picture win, when a reporter asked the cast and crew a question about Shirley’s family and their criticism of the film, it was directed toward Spencer, the film’s executive producer, not her white counterparts. Spencer, who in her answer focused on the film’s positive portrayal of Shirley, should be held accountable, but so should Farrelly, the other producers, and writers of the movie. 

It’s more than telling that Ali, as far as we know, has been the only cast and crew member to make a formal apology to the Shirley family. Better the beloved, Oscar-nominated actor take on the full brunt of this controversy, while his collaborators remain either silent or dismissive. 

As we continue to throttle through awards season, Farrelly, Vallelonga, Spencer and other actors and executives involved in the film will likely face more questions about their decision to exclude the Shirley family from production. With weeks until the Oscars, they will no doubt be asked to comment on the ways they failed Shirley’s legacy and the legacy of the Green Book.

But what Farrelly and his team should realize, quickly, is that critiques of their movie isn’t about pointing fingers. It’s about making Hollywood better.

Popular movies like “Green Book,” “The Help” and “Crash,” however well-intentioned, oversimplify the collective conversation surrounding race by painting racism as a problem that can be easily solved. As long as these movies keep getting lauded, and as long as their filmmakers aren’t challenged and pushed to dig deeper, how much progress can we expect to make?