‘Green Book’ fol­lows an out­dated road map, crit­ics say

The Washington Post - - STYLE - BY SO­NIA RAO

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. His wife fishes them out of the trash can. But by the end of the movie, which fol­lows Tony as he chauf­feurs ac­claimed jazz pi­anist Dr. 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 changes by lis­ten­ing to the other — Tony teaches Shirley how to let loose, al­beit via stereo­types like eat­ing fried chicken and en­joy­ing “black mu­sic” of the era, and Shirley teaches Tony how to ac­cept those who aren’t like him.

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, on Tues­day, 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. This raises the ques­tion of whether the film has stay­ing power through award sea­son, which amps up Thurs­day morn­ing with the Golden Globe nom­i­na­tions, as well as what its

legacy will be.

Some crit­ics, such as Monique Judge at the Root, feel that the movie “spoon-feeds racism to white peo­ple.” Oth­ers, such as 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.” In Vul­ture, Mark Har­ris con­cludes that the movie’s poor box­of­fice per­for­mance could be a sign that “af­ter 50 years, a par­tic­u­lar kind of movie about black and white Amer­ica has, at long last, run its course.”

To sup­port her ar­gu­ment, Judge points to a part of “Green Book” in which Tony and Shirley visit a men’s cloth­ing store in Ge­or­gia. Tony, who does most of the talk­ing in the movie, 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 brought this scene up in a re­cent in­ter­view with The Wash­ing­ton Post and said that, when she first saw the movie, she 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 in the film 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.

A good num­ber of non­white crit­ics seem to share Fred­er­ick’s dis­taste for the over­all film, but not all. Aramide Tin­ubu, who re­viewed “Green Book” for Shadow and Act, told The Post 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.”

Shirley’s brother, Mau­rice, re­broader a state­ment ac­cus­ing “Green Book” of in­ac­cu­rately de­pict­ing the pi­anist’s story and said his fam­ily wasn’t con­tacted un­til af­ter the film was al­ready made. (Shirley says in the movie that he has fallen out of touch with his brother, which the re­al­life Mau­rice de­nies.) Tin­ubu found this trou­bling — “maybe the di­rec­tor didn’t do his due dili­gence” — but clar­i­fied that she 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 “Green Book” 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 told the As­so­ci­ated Press. “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.”

Va­ri­ety’s chief film critic, Owen Gleiber­man, also pointed to Shirley and the story’s depth as a rea­son “Green Book” should be given a chance. It isn’t a white­sav­ior movie be­cause “the two char­ac­ters save one an­other” he ar­gued in a re­cent ar­ti­cle. “It’s not try­ing to make a grand state­ment about race ex­cept for the idea that white peo­ple and black peo­ple, to the ex­tent that their back­grounds and ex­pe­ri­ences sep­a­rate them, should try to un­der­stand each other bet­ter.”

It’s the way in which the story is told that crit­ics take is­sue with, of course, not the story it­self. But the­ater­go­ers seem to agree with Gleiber­man. He notes that “Green Book” has an A+ on Cine­maS­core, a mar­ket re­search firm that rates view­ing ex­pe­ri­ences based on auwas di­ence polls. Af­ter the Toronto fes­ti­val, the movie won an­other au­di­ence award at Vir­ginia’s Mid­dle­burg Film Fes­ti­val in midOc­to­ber.

While fes­ti­val di­rec­tor Su­san Koch ad­mit­ted that Mid­dle­burg’s film­go­ers tend to skew older and white, she said they are “prob­a­bly more di­verse” than at other fes­ti­vals. Mid­dle­burg had to host a sec­ond screen­ing af­ter the first quickly sold out.

“It was the clear win­ner for the best nar­ra­tive film,” she added. “It’s a very di­vi­sive time now, that we’re liv­ing in. A film that re­ally speaks to us com­ing to­gether and break­ing down stereo­types and the way we view one an­other was re­ally ap­pre­ci­ated.”

For this rea­son, “Green Book” seems likely to fare well through­out award sea­son, which also hap­pens to be dom­i­nated by vot­ing bod­ies that skew older and white. Chris Beachum, man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of the award-pre­dict­ing web­site Gold Derby, told The Post that at his Oc­to­ber awards screen­ing, the movie got more laugh­ter than any­thing he has seen in the past few months. Golden Globe vot­ers he has spo­ken to at in­dus­try events also seem to have en­joyed the movie.

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 rec­og­ni­zleased able 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?”


Viggo Mortensen, left, and Ma­her­shala Ali in “Green Book,” in which a white driver es­corts a black pi­anist across the 1960s South. Some crit­ics say the film re­duces the black char­ac­ter to a ve­hi­cle for the white char­ac­ter’s redemp­tion.

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