Soon after we meet Tony Vallelonga in “Green Book,” the Italian American man tosses out a pair of water glasses because black repairmen drank out of them. His wife fishes them out of the trash can. But by the end of the movie, which follows Tony as he chauffeurs acclaimed jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley through the Jim Crow South for a two-month concert tour, Tony is the one inviting the black man into his home.
This shouldn’t come as much of a spoiler. “Green Book,” based on a true story and co-written by Tony’s son, Nick, has been promoted as a healing tale of how the two men, played by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, overcome their differences and form an unlikely friendship in the early 1960s. Whereas Tony is poor, crass and prejudiced at first, Shirley is wealthy, uptight and wise. Each one changes by listening to other — Tony teaches Shirley how to let loose, albeit via stereotypes like eating fried chicken and enjoying “black music” of the era, and Shirley teaches Tony how to accept those who aren’t like him.
The movie, a buddy comedy of sorts, has racked up accolades: It won the Toronto International Film Festival’s audience award, was named best picture by the National Board of Review and, on Tuesday, landed on the American Film Institute’s Top 10 list.
But “Green Book” has also received its fair share of backlash, largely from critics who find fault with how it handles racial conflict. This raises the question of whether the film have staying power through award season, which amps up Thursday morning with the Golden Globe nominations, as well as what its broader legacy will be.
Some critics, like Monique Judge at the Root, feel that the movie “spoon-feeds racism to white people.” Others, like Candice Frederick writing for Slashfilm, claim it whitewashes a black experience by using the historic Negro Motorist Green Book, which existed to help black people protect themselves while traveling in the South, as a “mere prop.” In Vulture, Mark Harris concludes that the movie’s poor box-office performance could be a sign that “after 50 years, a particular kind of movie about black and white America has, at long last, run its course.”
To support her argument, Judge points to a part of “Green Book” in which Tony and Shirley visit a men’s clothing store in Georgia. Tony, who does most of the talking in the movie, asks about a suit on display, and the clerk happily cooperates until he realizes that Shirley is the one who wants to try it on. Visibly repulsed by the idea, the clerk then asks Shirley to either pay for the suit beforehand or leave the store altogether.
The racism seen in the movie is mild compared to “actual racial terrorism” that black people faced then and continue to experience, Judge argues. It serves to shock, but not frighten, white audiences.
Frederick brought this scene up in a recent interview with The Washington Post and said that, when she first saw the movie, she was surprised by the gasps and shocked responses to this scene.
“I think people have gotten comfortable with the idea that we are in a post-racial society where things like this don’t happen,” she said. “I’ll say it wasn’t any of us who were shocked — ‘us’ meaning the other black audience members.”
This reaction is similar to what followed “The Help,” Frederick said, referring the 2011 period drama about an aspiring author who aims to tell the stories of black maids working for wealthy white families like her own. Viola Davis earned an Oscar nomination for her role as maid Aibileen Clark in the film but told the New York Times earlier this year that she regrets accepting it because she felt “at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard.”
“Green Book” shares this central issue of “usurping the voice of the black protagonist in favor of the white protagonist,” according to Frederick. She praised the performances of both Ali and Mortensen — an Oscar winner and two-time nominee with undeniable on-screen chemistry — but said the former was “sidelined by the larger agenda” of favoring the white character’s emotional journey and humanity.
A good number of nonwhite critics seem to share Frederick’s distaste for the overall film, but not all. Aramide Tinubu, who reviewed “Green Book” for Shadow and Act, told The Post that she found it “more refreshing than I’m used to seeing, in terms of period pieces.” She didn’t consider Tony’s story to be a redemption arc — while he and Shirley do become friends, it is evident that Tony never fully understands what life is like for the pianist.
“It was a mirror to racist white Americans, even today,” Tinubu said. “I saw it as, you have all this privilege and you choose to act this poorly.”
Shirley’s brother, Maurice, released a statement accusing “Green Book” of inaccurately depicting the pianist’s story and said his family wasn’t contacted until after the film was already made. (Shirley says in the movie that he has fallen out of touch with his brother, which the real-life Maurice denies.) Tinubu found this troubling — “maybe the director didn’t do his due diligence” — but clarified that she doesn’t consider this to be a “white person’s movie” because of the white creative team’s decision to tell the story through Tony, or one that erases Shirley in any way.
Ali, for his part, has defended “Green Book” against claims that it is a “white savior” film or a “reverse ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’”
“It’s approached in a way that’s perhaps more palatable than some of those other projects. But I think it’s a legitimate offering,” he told the Associated Press. “Don Shirley is really complex considering it’s 1962. He’s the one in power in that car. He doesn’t have to go on that trip … Anytime, whether it’s white or black writers, I can play a character with dimensionality, that’s attractive to me.”
Variety’s chief film critic, Owen Gleiberman, also pointed to Shirley and the story’s depth as a reason “Green Book” should be given a chance. It isn’t a white-savior movie because “the two characters save one another” he argued in a recent article. “It’s not trying to make a grand statement about race except for the idea that white people and black people, to the extent that their backgrounds and experiences separate them, should try to understand each other better.”
It’s the way in which the story is told that critics take issue with, of course, not the story itself. But theatergoers seem to agree with Gleiberman. He notes that “Green Book” has an A+ on CinemaScore, a market research firm that rates viewing experiences based on audience polls. After the Toronto festival, the movie won another audience award at Virginia’s Middleburg Film Festival in mid-October.
While festival director Susan Koch admitted that Middleburg’s filmgoers tend to skew older and white, she said they are “probably more diverse” than at other festivals. Middleburg had to host a second screening after the first quickly sold out.
“It was the clear winner for the best narrative film,” she added. “It’s a very divisive time now, that we’re living in. A film that really speaks to us coming together and breaking down stereotypes and the way we view one another was really appreciated."
For this reason, “Green Book” seems likely to fare well throughout award season, which also happens to be dominated by voting bodies that skew older and white. Chris Beachum, managing editor of the award-predicting website Gold Derby, told The Post that at his October awards screening, the movie got more laughter than anything he has seen in the past few months. Golden Globe voters he has spoken to at industry events also seem to have enjoyed the movie.
Pete Hammond, Deadline’s chief film critic and awards columnist, added that the Toronto honor is a “very Oscar-predictive award” and that last year, seven of the nine best picture nominees had also placed on AFI’s Top 10 list. The warmth and message of “Green Book” are why it might perform as well as “In the Heat of the Night,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Blind Side,” “The Help” or “Hidden Figures” did, he continued.
And that’s exactly why Frederick isn’t interested in what awards “Green Book” might win. Some of those movies, while addressing race relations, represent a “long history of hiding the black protagonist in favor of the more palatable, more recognizable white protagonist,” she said, and outcry against them rarely tainted awards chances. Why would that change now?
“I don’t think a lot of us who are bemoaning the way in which [“Green Book”] is presented are doing it in order to dissuade voters,” Frederick said. “It’s more … why are movies like this presenting at all?"