Green Book takes a fascinating true story and makes the wrong man the star of the show

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By Patrick Sullivan, Film & TV Editor

Strong performances from Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali aside, Green Book deserves criticism for whitewashing Dr Don Shirley’s 1962 tour of the deep south.

YouTube / Universal Pictures

In only the second sequence of Green Book, Frank ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) drops two glasses in his kitchen bin after his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), gives them to two Black workmen to drink from. In the first, he is shown, in an intense close up, nearly punching a man to death while working as a bouncer for The Copacabana, the renowned New York City nightclub.

And yet the perspective of this film - written by Tony’s son Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, and director Peter Farrelly - sees this Italian-American bouncer-turned-driver as the hero rather than Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a Jamaican-American jazz pianist and composer fluent in eight languages.

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IMDb / Green Book / Universal Pictures

The film is based on the true story of Dr Don Shirley’s 1962 tour of the deep south with The Don Shirley Trio, during which he hired Tony to drive and protect him in states such as Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. The title refers to a guidance book - used by Shirley and Vallelonga during the tour - published by well-connected mailman Victor Hugo Green and his wife Alma between 1936 and 1966, listing hotels, restaurants, gas stations and more places throughout the US which were safe for Black travellers. That part, at least, is true.

Other details are more dubious, including a developing friendship of two opposite characters, Tony saving Dr Shirley multiple times from conflict, the pair spending a short time in prison, and, finally, Dr Shirley visiting the Vallelongas for Christmas. They have been cast into doubt by Dr Shirley’s family - who were not consulted during production - and the redemption arc of a clear racist has been criticised. Brooke Obie, Managing Editor of 'Shadow and Act', wrote a comprehensive review on Green Book's issues issues back in November.

Nick Vallelonga, co-writer of the film and son of Tony, has since had to apologise for tweets supporting Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks, and he now has a Golden Globe for ‘Best Screenplay - Motion Picture’. Director Peter Farrelly has also had to apologise for exposing himself on set in the ‘90s; Viggo Mortensen likewise for using the N-word in an interview.

Twitter / @ewanmcgregod

It’s a shame, because had Green Book focused on the remarkable Dr Shirley rather than Tony, the ever-tremendous Muslim actor Mahershala Ali would have been in the running for ‘Best Actor’ awards. Instead, he has to settle for ‘Supporting Actor’ awards - he won a Golden Globe for this role - in the midst of the film’s myriad controversies and hollow media apologies. Ali has such a magnetic screen presence and an innate ability to characterise, and he really should be leading these types of films.

Instead that task falls to Viggo Mortensen, who takes on a redemption arc role not dissimilar to that of the Oscar-winning Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), which received equal criticism. Like Rockwell, Mortensen embodies his character brilliantly and his charisma is undeniable, but you have to question the decision to take it on, given he sympathises lines such as: ‘You people love KFC.’

Twitter / @SoulSurge100

The film itself is action packed and moves at a terrific pace, but, besides that and the two high quality performances, is nothing remarkable. The now award-winning script is solid enough, but clearly tainted by its lack of regard for the context and history. Green Book is the type of film you’d expect to see celebrated for ‘starting the conversation’ in the ‘80s or ‘90s - but not today.

Featured Image Credit: IMDb / Patti Perret / Universal Studios


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AUTHOR

Patrick Sullivan

Epigram co-Editor-in-Chief 2019-20, now digital puzzles connoisseur. EngD student researching sustainable composites, entering my sixth year at UoB (somehow).