The Oscars In Transition: Best Picture Winner "Green Book" & Its Symphony of Lies
Much to the consternation of cinephiles everywhere, Green Book won the coveted Best Picture Oscar. Was it the best picture of 2018? No. At best it’s a sturdy flick powered to the middle-of-the-road solely due to Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali’s beautiful performances. In ordinary circumstances, Green Book’s win would be only disappointing. But in this case it’s more than disappointing. It’s distasteful.
For those unfamiliar with Green Book, a quick plot summary: Set in the early ‘60s, Green Book depicts the formation of a heartwarming bond between Black American musical genius Don Shirley (Ali) and his chauffeur, the uncouth Italian-American Tony “Lip” Vallengola (Mortensen). The film draws a false comparison between Tony Vallengola’s racism and Don Shirley’s emotional aloofness, giving the impression that they each have something equally valid to learn from the other and that racism can be overcome through a single interpersonal relationship. Over the course of the story, Tony saves Don from a number of violent and humiliating incidents of racially charged violence in the Deep South, making him a white saviour of sorts.
Green Book has been mired in controversy since its release. Nick Vallengola, Tony’s son, wrote the screenplay. It’s a screenplay which has been accused of being a “symphony of lies” by Don Shirley’s brother Maurice Shirley. For instance, Green Book depicts Don Shirley as a recluse who has lost touch with his family. This isn’t based in reality. Dr. Edwin Shirley Jr., Don Shirley’s youngest brother, said “There wasn’t a month where I didn’t have a phone call conversation with Donald”. But the biggest lie of all is that of Don Shirley and Tony Vallengola’s friendship. When asked if they were friends, Maurice and Patricia Shirley said “No. Not at all. It was an employer-employee relationship.”
And, yikes, is it ever obvious they weren’t friends in real life. The final title card states that Don Shirley and Tony Lip remained friends until their death. The photo it depicts of this fact are two separate side-by-side portraits of Don and Tony; surely a single photo of the two of them together, arms clasped around the other’s shoulders, poignant youthful grins lighting up their old, frail faces, would’ve illustrated this touching “fact” more firmly? Of course it would have. But such a photo probably doesn’t exist.
A rose-tinted depiction of racism is one thing. But when a white man screenwriter – the actual son of Viggo Mortensen’s character, this can’t be stressed enough – exploits and carelessly alters a real-life African-American man’s truth and sells fiction as fact in order to reap profit and Oscar prestige, it is deeply troubling. And it becomes distasteful when it’s rewarded.
In light of all this, Green Book’s greatest virtue, its pleasing sheen of warmth and good will, can only be read as a nasty trick rather than a genuine artistic choice - a cold calculation to camouflage lies. But that white saviour feel good movie has always been too enticing for the Oscars to resist: The Help, Hidden Figures, The Blind Side, Driving Miss Daisy, and Crash are just a few other examples. Hollywood is far and away the biggest global exporter of stories in the world. What the collective body deems worthy of the accolades and the attention certainly matters.
What’s more frustrating is that the Academy had been favouring bolder choices in the last couple of years. Moonlight, a gritty low-budget piece about a poor taciturn Black boy growing up in the mean streets of impoverished Liberty City, defied all expectations by being a delicate, kind, and sumptuously photographed story – and winning Best Picture, besting the favourite, La La Land. Just last year, a weird and dorky science fiction movie about the earnest love between a deaf woman and a bipedal fish humanoid won Best Picture. And the nominees weren’t exactly lacking outstanding qualities this year. Consider Black Panther’s incalculable global cultural resonance; The Favourite as an intoxicating meditation on power that’s bursting with deliciously wicked perversions; Roma’s tender gaze at a subject matter many big time artists don’t bother to even glance at; and even BlacKKKlansman’s expert blend of rage and humour. For Green Book’s beige-aesthetic-welded-to-a-formulaic-narrative to be rewarded with the highest honour feels like a giant step backward.
Still, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future. Roma was rightfully rewarded in the Director and Cinematography categories. Regina King won Best Supporting Actress for her work in the underrated If Beale Street Could Talk. And Spike Lee won his first Oscar for BlacKKKlansman’s screenplay. It’s a screenplay that’s far more confrontationally honest with where America has been and where it is now, and the fact that it won and is pointedly the opposite of Green Book’s inoffensive ethos is something to take note of. Spike Lee’s jubilant reaction at his win was worth the price of admission alone. Even Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s win was a shocking delight, considering Disney has an iron grip on the Best Animated Feature category.
The Academy is clearly in a transitional period, torn between rewarding feel-good message movies and bold, deeply personal works of art that don’t conform to expectations. It’ll be a forever kind of struggle, probably, but dear god, at the very least, I hope that milquetoast films filled with insidious lies aren’t rewarded just because they make a certain segment of the population feel good about themselves.