Can we finally end the chapter on “Green Book”?
Since winning best picture at the 91st Oscars on Sunday, the film world — or, more precisely, its distorted reflection in the bubbles of Twitter, clickbait articles and comments sections — has been roiled in debate and distress. Most connoisseurs agreed: “Green Book” wasn’t as artistically ambitious as Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma.” It wasn’t as coruscatingly relevant to our times as Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” Nor was it a cultural and technical milestone on a par with “Black Panther,” which in addition to being a visually thrilling, densely layered, brilliantly acted action adventure, happened to be the most successful movie of 2018.
Instead, “Green Book” was an idealized, earnestly optimistic buddy comedy about an Italian American bouncer named Tony Vallelonga and a black concert pianist named Don Shirley, who find unexpected friendship and understanding during a road trip through the Jim Crow South.
The film never aspired for canonical greatness or awards prestige, nor did it claim to “cure” racism or that America has achieved post-racial bliss. “We didn’t set out to make a message,” director Peter Farrelly told Indiewire’s Anne Thompson in November. Its familiar road-picture script, co-written by Nick Vallelonga, whose father inspired the main character, was elevated by bravura performances by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. Directed with straightforward simplicity by Farrelly, “Green Book” aimed primarily to entertain viewers with a story of racial reconciliation that, despite its softened contours, had the ring of truth.
Audiences reacted enthusiastically, bestowing several awards on the festival circuit since the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Clearly, academy voters had a similarly warm emotional response to the film, which helps explain why it took the organization’s top honors. Unlike every other category, best picture is selected with a preferential ballot, whereby members rank the nominees in descending order. The winner is tabulated by a series of runoffs, until a film reaches 51 percent of the vote, meaning that the movies that do best are the ones that receive lots of 1’s, 2’s and 3’s — movies that people like or even love, but that very few hate.
It’s just this kind of consensus-building that explains why unpretentious crowd-pleasers such as “The King’s Speech” and “Argo” often win best picture over technically more accomplished films such as “The Social Network” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” Academy members, it turns out, are much more like the rest of us than their rarefied position within the film colony might suggest. The fact that, as in the case of “Argo,” they nominated “Green Book” for best screenplay and editing along with best picture suggests an abiding affection for traditional, un-edgy three-act narratives. Generally, they’ll reserve the best director Oscar for filmmakers who flout those rules, such as the adamantly anti-linear Cuarón. They vote for the movies that move them, not just masterworks that awe or impress.
Although detractors immediately chalked up “Green Book’s” win to the intransigent racism of a still majority-white academy, the fact that it was so widely favored, presumably across demographic niches, is far more germane. (It’s no doubt true that some voted for the film expressly to push back against its most vitriolic critics in the press.)
Still, the optics of the evening were inescapable. On a night when more women and people of color than ever before took the stage, and when films like “Black Panther, “BlacKkKlansman,” “If Beale Street Could Talk” — each of which engages America’s racial history with nuance and aesthetic depth — took home prizes, it felt like a jarring about-face to see the academy give its ultimate reward to a movie made by white filmmakers centered on the conversion experience of a lovable racist. A century of cinematic history that marginalized and ignored African Americans — a history Lee elegantly invokes in “BlacKkKlansman,” no less — seemed to play out again, in real time. It didn’t help that “Green Book” came out nearly 30 years after “Driving Miss Daisy,” which won best picture in 1990 when Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” wasn’t even nominated. (“The refs made a bad call,” Lee bitterly complained after this year’s ceremony.)
Unassuming and unremarkable, “Green Book” clearly wasn’t the most important or groundbreaking movie of 2018. But, especially in light of the academy’s voting procedures, its victory isn’t nearly as “shocking” or “divisive” as so many hot takes claimed. I was in the packed ballroom at the Middleburg Film Festival when audience members leaped to their feet for “Green Book,” with the racially mixed audience showering Mortensen, Farrelly and composer Kris Bowers with gratitude for sharing a story of humor, human connection and steadfast hope. That viewing experience informed my review of a film that, in other circumstances, I might have taken to task for being too safe, too saccharine, too eager to be liked. Instead I felt firsthand how the movie played to an audience hungry for the kind of engaging, wholesome, smoothly effective entertainment Hollywood rarely makes anymore.
That’s why the criticisms of “Green Book” — that it’s a movie made for white people to feel better about themselves, that it traffics in the toxic tropes of white saviors and magical Negroes — often sound so condescending themselves and inch so perilously close to telling audiences they’re wrong for liking it. When observers snark that the likes of Rep. John Lewis and Octavia Spencer are being used as racial cover for “Green Book’s” mostly white filmmaking team, it sounds like they’re denying them the very agency the movie is accused of withholding from Don Shirley. Even at its most persuasive, the opprobrium — which became more aggressive as the campaign season accelerated — felt disproportionate to the film’s humble intent.
Is “Green Book” a capital-g Great Film? No. Is it a perfect or all-encompassing lens through which to view the most violent realities of white supremacy and structural racism? Of course not. But to call it a movie that “only white people like” is patronizing and inaccurate. And, within its feel-good genre conventions and self-imposed limitations, it offers a moving and accessible portal into a story whose entry points are, quite literally, endless.
To wit: “Green Book” came out the same year that “Black Panther,” “BlacKkKlansman” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” were released, as well as “Blindspotting,” “Sorry to Bother You” and “The Hate U Give.” It’s one of many films offering viewers a way to process our past and present, all of them valuable despite stark differences in taste, tone and temperament. After a punishing awards campaign and equally bruising aftermath, the best picture mantle feels more like a burden than an honor. With luck, as “Green Book” makes its way to hundreds more theaters this weekend, it will go from punching bag, cultural signifier and political shibboleth to what it should have been all along: a movie, not a message.