Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, "Green Book" is a feel-good, road-trip, buddy movie. Or is it? Someone recently commented: "'Green Book' isn't saying as much as it thinks it is"—or maybe what it's saying is even worse than vapid. But first, my initial impressions watching the film. The premise is delicious, of course. An uncouth, Italian-American New York bouncer becomes a chauffeur for a highly-cultured, fastidious African-American genius pianist in the 1960's. But that's not all. They're going on tour in the Deep South. It's the mismatched Odd Couple among wolves—a spin on the "fish out of water" story.
Oh, and the title "Green Book" is apt. There was actually a book for "Negro motorists" telling them what they could and couldn't do, where they could and couldn't eat and sleep in the South. I think this title, this chilling and pathetic "little" piece of history is a bigger part of the film than we might first realize. Lest we forget.
PREMISE HAD PROMISE
Although the premise had promise, I was skeptical about the execution. Was the film going to be full of facile, writ large SET UPS for trouble with a capital T? Was it going to be brimming with polarizing white vs. black stereotypes and truisms? Would it really "go there" to the roots and heart of racism and make us uncomfortable and convicted (I speak as a white person, of course)? Although remaining rather surface (GB is a light comedy), I was pleasantly surprised by the nuance (for the most part) and humanity and mirth (meaning it made me laugh a lot).
EQUAL CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT?
GB is billed as "based on a true friendship," but the main character is squarely Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen in the role of his life, not for the depth of the part, but for his "inhabiting" the character). Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is almost an under-developed, one-dimensional prop in the back seat. Ali does a fine acting job (far better than "Moonlight," where I didn't "buy" his tough guy acting at all). In fact, Dr. Shirley's character is so under-developed, isolated, conflicted, reticent and one-dimensional that it seems impossible that this portrayal could have been the real Dr. Shirley (a man who left his cushy digs and gigs in NYC to put himself in harm's way on purpose). We're not even sure why he's so interiorly conflicted (beyond the constant challenges that prejudice presented).
It seems my suspicions may be correct. I understand the "BASED on a true story" poetic license, but I believe that has limits when you're talking about real, historical people. Toward the end of the film I thought: this really isn't an "equal" film about friends (no matter what "color" they are). Shirley is fading into the background and we barely know him at all.
THE REAL DR. DONALD SHIRLEY
Not only is "Green Book" being castigated by many in the Black community for being a "white savior" film (although there is some tit for tat with Shirley challenging and teaching Vallelonga to "do better," helping him write love letters to his wife, appreciate the finer things in life and not always immediately resort to his fists), it seems that not only is Dr. Shirley's life, work and personality misrepresented and mischaracterized, he never gave "life rights" for this film to be produced.* Vallelonga's son, Nick, along with director, Peter Farrelly, claim some kind of verbal permission, but this has been roundly denied by Shirley's family (Dr. Shirley died in 2013). In fact, the only person Dr. Shirley allowed to tell his story was a neighbor living in the artist's colony above Carnegie Hall, Josef Astor https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DY69eoacdLg
"Let It Shine--Donald Shirley In His Own Words." (Enjoy this delightful eight-minute snapshot!)
ANOTHER TRUE OUTRAGE
Like fellow musical prodigy Nina Simone, who was trained to be a classical pianist but was denied the right to perform and pursue this genre professionally simply because she was Black, the same happened to Dr. Shirley, and that's why he had to create an amalgam of classical and jazz in order to have a career of any kind. (This fact alone in Shirley's story is incredibly outrageous and infuriating.) However, Shirley was able to put his foot down on many other (albeit lesser) issues in his life and demanded to be accepted on his own terms (e.g., wearing tuxedos).
Why the short, truly humiliating homosexual bath house scene (where Tony is, once again, the hero)? Is this just a political statement that, like the prejudice of racism, the prejudice against homosexuals needs to be done away with? It seems the real Dr. Shirley wouldn't even exactly declare himself on the "question" of his "sexuality." I found it very off-putting that the filmmakers chose to include this scene, in the sense of anyone--especially such a distinguished figure as Dr. Shirley--being exposed, naked, in flagrante (although the visuals are discreet) in the context of a light comedy. It really didn't match the tone.
HONORING THE ARTIST
As far as GB being labeled "racist," it's not so much for the racial epithets hurled around on all sides in the film—which is absolutely true to life—(much like TV's "All in the Family" which did the same in order to highlight the wrongness and ridiculousness of it), but for the perspective. The white entertainment perspective. I get that. I'm white and I admit I thoroughly enjoyed the film with few misgivings at first. I'm sure that there are Black people who don't take offense at GB and appreciate "the effort" to make Dr. Shirley and his music known once again to the world (even while glorifying Vallelonga over Shirley), and to deride bigotry by skewering it.
However this film got made and however it was executed may have been at least partially unjust, but think about this: "imitation is the sincerest form of admiration."** Tony Vallelongo and his son Nick literally hitched their wagon to a star.
*My understanding of "life rights" is that if they had made a biopic directly about Dr. Shirley, that would not be allowed without some kind of express permission (from the person themselves, their estate, etc.). But since the main character is Tony Vallelonga, one can include, even in a major way, acquaintances, employers, family members in the telling of one's own story.
**This, incidentally, is why I have a problem with much of the outcry against "cultural appropriation" (coming from any culture). Um, cultural appropriation is an incredible compliment (if done sincerely and not to shortchange, rook, distort or mock). Cultures have ALWAYS appropriated all kinds of good stuff from other cultures. It's what human beings do. If we want to trademark/patent every last aspect of our culture (and is it purely ours?) then we won't matter any more and we won't have influence and we are ghetto-izing ourselves.
About the Author
Sister Helena Burns is a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, an international congregation founded to communicate God's Word through the media. She has an M.A. in Media Literacy Education; a B.A. in theology and philosophy from St. John's University, NYC; studied screenwriting at UCLA and Act One, Hollywood; and holds a Certificate in Pastoral Youth Ministry. Sr. Helena is also studying at the Theology of the Body Institute, PA.
She is a movie reviewer for Life Teen & The Catholic Channel--Sirius XM. She wrote and directed Media Apostle: The Father James Alberione Story, a documentary on the life of Blessed James Alberione, and is a co-producer on www.The40film.com a pro-life film documenting the 40 years since Roe v. Wade. She is the author of He Speaks to You, a book for young women published by Pauline Books & Media and developed a Theology of the Body curriculum for teens, young adults and adults, which she presents in a 40-hour course.
Sr. Helena gives Media Literacy and Theology of the Body workshops to youth and adults all over the U.S. and Canada, and believes that media can be a primary tool for sharing God's love and salvation.