Will Green Book hold up un­der scru­tiny?

After the Golden Globe win the lit­tle-movie-that-could has a tar­get on its back, as op­pos­ing teams look for any am­mu­ni­tion they can use against it

The Hamilton Spectator - - A & E - ANN HOR­NA­DAY

LOS AN­GE­LES — When “Green Book” won three Golden Globes on Sun­day, a num­ber of nar­ra­tives be­gan to take shape: The awards — for best com­edy or mu­si­cal, best screen­play and Ma­her­shala Ali’s sup­port­ing per­for­mance — were among the big­gest sur­prises of the night, up­set­ting such sup­posed fron­trun­ners as the multi-nom­i­nated “Vice” or “Mary Pop­pins Re­turns.”

What’s more, “Green Book” ar­rived at the cer­e­mony dogged by on­screen and off­screen con­tro­ver­sies, in­clud­ing crit­i­cism from the fam­ily of Ali’s char­ac­ter, the pi­anist Don Shirley, as well as ac­cu­sa­tions that the film is “di­vi­sive,” per­pet­u­at­ing racist stereo­types of white saviours and “mag­i­cal Ne­groes.” The ques­tion, as Sun­day night turned to Mon­day morn­ing, when bal­lot­ing opened for the Academy Awards, was whether those dis­putes with the film would scut­tle its Os­car chances.

But, as with most nar­ra­tives, the con­ven­tional wis­dom bears some closer scru­tiny.

For starters: Was “Green Book” re­ally that much of a sur­prise? On paper, it’s a sure­fire Os­car con­tender. It took the au­di­ence award at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val in Septem­ber, which of­ten au­gurs well for awards sea­son down the road. It has earned sim­i­lar hon­ours at nearly ev­ery fes­ti­val it’s played, in­clud­ing Mid­dle­burg, Vir­ginia, where two sold-out crowds gave it wildly en­thu­si­as­tic stand­ing ova­tions.

The movie, a warm, up­beat pi­caresque in­spired by the re­al­life story of Tony Val­le­longa (Viggo Mortensen) and the year he spent driv­ing Shirley through the Deep South in the early 1960s, has per­formed mod­estly well in the 1,200 the­atres it’s opened in since U.S. Thanks­giv­ing. (Now play­ing in 600 or so the­atres, the film ar­rived in 500 more this week­end, and will con­tinue to ex­pand through Os­car sea­son.) Even more re­veal­ing — and giv­ing the lie to de­scrib­ing it as “di­vi­sive” — the film has earned an A-plus Cine­maS­core, mean­ing that nearly ev­ery­one who sees it, loves it.

That goes for in­dus­try in­sid­ers here in Hol­ly­wood. At a view­ing party spon­sored by a ri­val stu­dio on Sun­day night, a script co­or­di­na­tor cheered when the film won best com­edy. She loved it, she said. “And my mom loved it. And if my mom loves a movie, it’s a great movie.”

It’s pre­cisely that your-mom-will-love-it qual­ity that has made “Green Book” so beloved among its fans: It’s that rare movie you can take your kids, par­ents and grand­par­ents to and have an en­ter­tain­ing, gen­uinely mean­ing­ful ex­pe­ri­ence. But that very ap­proach­a­bil­ity has also made the film a tar­get for de­trac­tors who take is­sue with its most nostal­gic — they would say ret­ro­grade — qual­i­ties.

Un­like edgier films that ad­dressed racism this year (“BlacKkKlans­man,” “Sorry to Bother You”), “Green Book” is a main­stream fam­ily film and tells a far more re­as­sur­ing story of over­com­ing per­sonal prej­u­dice to find com­mon un­der­stand­ing, akin to sim­i­larly-themed movies from decades ago. But “Green Book,” which was co-writ­ten by Val­le­longa’s son, Nick, and di­rected by Peter Far­relly, dif­fers from those pre­de­ces­sors in cru­cial ways: It isn’t a white saviour movie as much as a gen­tle, ut­terly con­ven­tional buddy com­edy and road movie, with both men chang­ing in the end thanks to their im­prob­a­ble friend­ship.

The film is sim­ple and straight­for­ward, but doesn’t ig­nore the story’s con­tra­dic­tory power dy­nam­ics. And, with au­di­ences at least, it’s far from di­vi­sive: Rather than ap­peal­ing only to the self-pro­tec­tive sen­si­bil­i­ties of white au­di­ences, as some crit­ics have sug­gested, “Green Book” is prov­ing pop­u­lar across pop­u­la­tions. (Al­though far from a sci­en­tific sam­ple, in front of Mid­dle­burg’s au­di­ence, which was roughly 30 per cent AfricanAmer­i­can, it played like gang­busters.)

The ques­tion, when it comes to “Green Book,” might be less ra­cial than gen­er­a­tional: Can a film made in the tra­di­tion of whole­some, non­con­fronta­tional life les­sons and happy-end­ings be re­motely ac­cept­able any­more? Does it pos­sess val­ues worth cheer­ing de­spite its self-im­posed lim­i­ta­tions? Or is the en­tire form in­her­ently re­gres­sive and ill­suited to the present era, es­pe­cially when it comes to sto­ries about race told from the point of view of a white pro­tag­o­nist?

Those ques­tions will be par­tic­u­larly ger­mane in a year dur­ing which the Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sciences has wel­comed more than 1,000 young new mem­bers who will be bring­ing dif­fer­ent stan­dards, lenses and ex­pec­ta­tions to the films they’ll be­gin to nom­i­nate this week. (In the mean­time, “Green Book” has also been nom­i­nated for guild awards for writ­ing, edit­ing and di­rec­tion.)

At this writ­ing, few Academy vot­ers seem to be aware of the Shirley fam­ily’s dis­ap­proval of “Green Book” (Shirley’s brother has called the film “a sym­phony of lies,” and has taken is­sue with the sug­ges­tion that Shirley was es­tranged from him and the rest of their rel­a­tives). The po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary sur­round­ing the film so far seems lim­ited to in­tra­critic de­bates and Twit­ter.

Most likely, that will soon change: In the world of cut­throat, ex­pen­sive Os­car cam­paign­ing, what be­gan as a $20 mil­lion lit­tle-movie-that-could now has a tar­get on its back, as op­pos­ing teams look for any am­mu­ni­tion they can use against it. “Green Book” has al­ready gar­nered pow­er­ful ad­vo­cates, in­clud­ing Quincy Jones, Harry Be­la­fonte, Henry Louis Gates and film­maker John Sin­gle­ton. And Oc­tavia Spencer, one of the film’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers, will be more vis­i­ble on the hus­tings. After the Globes cer­e­mony on Sun­day night, she ad­dressed the Shirley fam­ily’s ob­jec­tions to “Green Book” first by stat­ing she didn’t want to “cause them any more dis­tress.”

In re­sponse to a ques­tion from the web­site Shadow & Act, she con­tin­ued: “I’ve been a part of four films from this era, and it was the first time I saw a per­son of colour with agency ... (F)or me, it was about the idea that there were peo­ple like Don Shirley in the ’60s, and we never saw that on film. That’s what I took from it, and that’s what I still take from it. I thank Pete and Nick and Ma­her­shala and Viggo and all of the film­mak­ers for putting their hearts into it. So that’s what I’d say to the Shirley fam­ily. He meant a lot to a lot of peo­ple, and I’m glad that we got to share that story.”


Viggo Mortensen, left, and Ma­her­shala Ali in "Green Book," a sim­ple and straight­for­ward main­stream fam­ily movie.

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