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. But by the end of the movie, which follows Tony as he chauffeurs acclaimed jazz pianist 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.
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 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. 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.”
To support her argument, Judge points to a scene in which Tony and Shirley visit a men’s clothing store in Georgia. Tony 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 said 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 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.
Not all nonwhite critics share Frederick’s distaste for the film. Aramide Tinubu, who reviewed “Green Book” for Shadow and Act, said 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.”
Tinubu 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 the movie 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 said. “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.”
Now the question is how the film will fare during awards season.
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?”