Film critic Scott Wilson watches Green Book, a film that – in the MeToo era – can’t be separated from those who created it
Green Book – ★★★★☆
It is no crime to tell a story wearing rose-tinted glasses. During The Greatest Showman’s gargantuan cinematic run in the first half of 2018, much was made of how the real PT Barnum was an exploitative monster, taking in vulnerable people to make a mockery of them in his shows. His story is not one of inclusion like the film suggests, but one in which he profited off the backs of inviting audiences to point and laugh at people with differences. For the sake of a feel-good film, his narrative was appropriated for a modern audience looking to celebrate social outcasts, in turn resulting in a film Barnum himself would likely have disapproved of.
Which is to say, storytelling exists in an ambiguous cultural area, where the story itself is both separate and not at all separate from everything around it. The TimesUp and MeToo movements have forced people to reconsider their relationships with art made by abusive people, wondering if enjoying the product of their work can ever be apart from enjoying the artists themselves.
Awards season has a tendency to create its own narratives, often quietly orchestrated by heavily funded campaigns. Bradley Cooper appearing at one of Lady Gaga’s Las Vegas residencies to duet on A Star is Born’s Shallow isn’t just a nice idea; in the run up to February’s Oscars, it’s a massive ‘for your consideration’ ploy.
While that instance is harmless and wholesome, other films have had a kneecapping, and rightly so in the case of Bohemian Rhapsody. For a film met with a critical shrug, its inclusion in awards season is already a head-scratcher, but with continued allegations of sexual abuse levied at its director Bryan Singer, one has to wonder the merits of celebrating it. Tellingly, no one thanked him in their Golden Globes acceptance speeches. For an industry that just recently sounded hellbent on getting rid of these violent figures, it has failed to practice what it preaches by continuing to reward them at ceremonies and by refusing to acknowledge their actions when given the biggest platform to do so.
“In Tony’s increasing tolerance towards Shirley, he apparently goes from lovably racist to lovably not-racist in the space of a couple of hours. This is a type of wish-fulfilment in a world fixated on identity politics, where white audiences can celebrate a type of bare-minimum when it comes to acceptance.”
All this to say: Green Book is impossible to separate from the discourse surrounding it. The tale of Italian-American Tony Vallelonga chaperoning black musician Don Shirley around the American South in the 1960s aims for feel-good comedy territory and a message of tolerance. The initially racist Vallelonga warms to Shirley as they travel from gig to gig, increasingly protective of him from the thugs and institutional racism they encounter.
On its own, the film means well. Hypothesising that societal division comes from a lack of exposure to other communities is neither new nor radical, but in our severely divided times, a reminder to love thy neighbour regardless of the colour of their skin (or their sexuality, gender, class, and so on) is a welcome one.
It attempts to address intersectionality too, though through an admittedly crude approach. The well-spoken and reclusive Shirley is told he knows less about his own people than Vallelonga because of the differences in their lifestyles, where one is distancing himself from preconceived notions of what it means to be black and the other is in among the poorer areas of New York. This idea of separate signifiers of identity is one too complex for how the film deals with it, mostly through Vallelonga’s disbelief that Shirley hasn’t tried fried chicken and doesn’t know popular black musicians.
In Tony’s increasing tolerance towards Shirley, he apparently goes from lovably racist to lovably not-racist in the space of a couple of hours. This is a type of wish-fulfilment in a world fixated on identity politics, where white audiences can celebrate a type of bare-minimum when it comes to acceptance. It feels outdated, especially when held up against the likes of Blackkklansman, Sorry to Bother You, and Get Out. It shouldn’t be enough for an issue this ingrained in our public discourse to be handled like fluff, and fluff bordering on sentimental schmaltz at that. If a film is going to tackle something as weighty as racism, it has to decide whether it is going to handle it with the heft it deserves, especially when gunning for success at the Oscars where all eyes will be on it.
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As with The Greatest Showman, it’s possible to take a story and apply rose-tinted glasses. It’s possible to view Green Book as funny and culturally relevant, a film that slips up along the way but ultimately means well.
But then, it’s possible to look at the wider context. Shirley’s family have distanced themselves from the film, saying the relationship portrayed on-screen is unrealistic and not at all indicative of the strictly professional dynamic Shirley and Vallelonga had. Mahershala Ali, who has won numerous awards including a Golden Globe for portraying Shirley, has apologised.
And, Nick Vallelonga, the film’s writer and son of Tony Vallelonga, tweeted in support of Donald Trump, saying he had seen Muslims in New Jersey celebrating 9/11. He has since apologised for the hurt caused. A film which, at its heart, is about overcoming societal differences feels disingenuous and insincere when its writer is stroking that very same division. Ali was the first Muslim to win an acting Oscar for his role in Moonlight.
And, The Cut revealed director Peter Farrelly has previously exposed his penis on his film sets, supposedly as a prank which his brother Bobby, his usual co-director, was also involved in. He has since apologised, saying it makes him cringe now.
Green Book is not without its problems, but it is possible for storytellers to get something wrong without losing their pure intentions. It is up to the individual viewer now to decide whether the film is strong enough to warrant working past the multitude of issues surrounding its place in the world. We have yet to work out what to do in situations like these, and Barthes’s Death of the Author can only go so far when consumers are as interested in the real lives of those creating the art as they are the art themselves. As transparency only increases, this is something that will only become more frequent until the industry – and all industries – cleans up its act.
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