The Oscar-winning-film “Green Book” tells the real-life story of two men, Don Shirley and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, who get to know one another in the 1960s. Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a talented but uptight black pianist who travels through the American South for a concert tour. Tony (Viggo Mortensen) is the bigoted man Shirley hires to drive him around. Throughout the trip, Shirley and Tony learn to overcome their differences and become unlikely friends.
While accepting the best picture award Sunday, director Peter Farrelly (“Dumb and Dumber”) acknowledged Mortensen multiple times for taking on the lead role: “It all started with Viggo,” he said, also thanking Ali and their co-star, Linda Cardellini, who plays Tony’s wife. Farrelly did so while standing alongside co-screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son, with whom he also won best original screenplay earlier in the ceremony.
Quite noticeably, Shirley’s name didn’t make it into either speech.
It’s a fitting end to what has been a rather tumultuous path to victory. Although “Green Book” picked up quite a few trophies throughout award season, the movie polarized critics. Some valued its feel-good message, especially in today’s politically charged climate. But Shirley’s family found fault with its accuracy and claimed in a letter sent to media that they weren’t contacted until after the movie was complete. Others felt it leveraged Shirley’s pain for Tony’s betterment without returning the favor.
“This film spoon-feeds racism to white people,” Monique Judge wrote for the Root, referring to a scene in which the men visit a shop in Georgia where Shirley is told that he cannot try on a suit before purchasing it. (The blatant show of racism is a teaching moment for Tony and, according to Judge, white audiences.)
Mark Harris theorized in a piece for Vulture that the film’s slow burn at the box office may have offered “a lesson that after 50 years, a particular kind of movie about black and white America has, at long last, run its course.” The defining narrative among those who disliked it became that it was the modern version of “Driving Miss Daisy” or, sarcastically, that the simple events leading to its happy ending meant the movie had “solved racism.”
Spike Lee, whose film “BlacKkKlansman” was also nominated for best picture, might be the best representation of such views. The best adapted screenplay winner sipped champagne backstage at the Oscars before telling reporters that it was his sixth glass “and you know why.” He remarked that he loses “every time somebody’s driving somebody,” referring to the 1990 Oscars, when “Do the Right Thing” lost best screenplay to “Driving Miss Daisy.” When asked about “Green Book” winning best picture, he took another sip and said, “Next question!”
Even Farrelly has expressed surprise at the film’s success throughout award season: “When you make ‘Dumb and Dumber,’ you don’t ever expect to get an award,” he said while accepting top honors at the Producers Guild Awards.
Farrelly and Mortensen have previously faced criticism. Mortensen made headlines and later apologized for using the n-word while promoting “Green Book,” which Ali addressed during a subsequent event: “I can accept and embrace his apology,” Ali said of his co-star, before adding that “the use of the word by those who aren’t black is not up for debate. The history of discrimination, slavery, pain, oppression and violence that the word has come to symbolize only causes harm to members of the black community and therefore needs to be left in the past."
In response to news reports about Shirley’s family, Mortensen told Variety that Nick Vallelonga had “shown admirable restraint in the face of some accusations and some claims . . . that have been unjustified, uncorroborated and basically unfair.” Farrelly said he was “very disappointed” by the family’s comments but that the movie is “about a two-month period in these men’s lives. It’s not about [Shirley] and his family. It really isn’t."
The movie itself isn’t all that has attracted controversy. Days after “Green Book” won multiple Golden Globes — including best picture, musical or comedy — the younger Vallelonga’s own remarks came under fire. He deactivated his Twitter account in early January after a November 2015 tweet of his recirculated: “@realDonaldTrump 100% correct,” it read. “Muslims in Jersey City cheering when towers went down. I saw it, as you did, possibly on local CBS news.” Trump had brought up the debunked 9/11 story at a campaign rally that month.
Vallelonga apologized in a statement shared with The Washington Post “for the hurt that I have caused,” but not before others pointed out that Ali, who played a man said to be close to Vallelonga’s father, is a practicing Muslim. Ali won best supporting actor Sunday, two years after he took home the same award for his role in another best picture, “Moonlight.” (He became the first Muslim actor to ever win an Oscar at that 2017 ceremony.)
Ali thanked Shirley right away.
“The academy, thank you,” he said. “I want to thank Dr. Shirley . . . Just trying to capture Dr. Shirley’s essence pushed me to my ends, which is a reflection of the person he was and the life that he lived. I thank him.”