A Critical Review of The Green Book

Posted on January 10, 2019

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First, let me say to Donald Shirley’s family: You have my sincere respect and gratitude. What you’re experiencing right now (attempts at silencing and downright ignoring your criticism by some in the media) is routine when Hollywood falls in love with these kinds of stories. In the push to show how liberal the industry is, mistakes get made, people get hurt, and black voices are once again, not valued). Your family is just the latest.

I downloaded the script for The Green Book, and I’ve researched what the principal creators have had to say (through their public interviews)

 

I also have my own red flags that I use to spot whether writers fall into this trap:

  • Getting the audience or readers to feel sorry for the black character(s), (sometimes by stereotypical scenes or a Magic Negro appearance)
  • Rehabilitation of the racist white character in a fairly short period of time (before the novels end or movie finale).
  • Glossing over the imbalance of power that still weighs in the white character’s favor (tale is usually told from their perspective even if the premise claims otherwise).
  • Including Octavia Spencer and fried chickengate. Yes, you read that correctly. Because just like Octavia had no problem uttering the lines ““Frying chicken make you tend to feel better about life” – Minny Jackson, from the movie The Help and “Minny don’t burn no chicken.” – Minny Jackson, from the movie The Help

Spencer apparently goes on to co-sign the Kentucky Fried chicken scene from The Green Book, as per Peter Farrelly: “In regards to the now-infamous fried chicken scene, he said, “The fried-chicken-eating scene — that one had me worrying. It’s great, but I thought, Could people be bothered by that? Could it be seen as racist?”

According to Farrelly, he had nothing to fear.

“When she was in the editing room with me, Octavia was howling, and it just gave me such encouragement.”

Link: https://shadowandact.com/the-real-donald-shirley-green-book-hollywood-swallowed-whole

 

So, they wrote it, filmed it, and after the fact Octavia Spencer was their go to black person to validate it. 

Now, let me just say this, lest any reader thinks I’ve got it out for Spencer. I happen to think (and I’ve said it on this site several times) that Spencer is talented and attractive. But after my extensive research on The Help and Spencer’s participation before the book and movie came out, please excuse my side-eye at this scenario. Yeah, I’ll just stick with that.

Spencer also starred in the aptly titled “Chicken Party” short film written and directed by Tate Taylor (director of The Help):

Tate Taylor’s Chicken Party, starring Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney and of all things, “fried chicken”

 

That’s why I wouldn’t expect her to offer any resistance. More likely she’ll defend to the end. For more info, please see these posts on this site:

 

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/12/11/aibileen-and-minny-were-robbed/

 

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/what-about-frying-chicken/

 

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/tainted-love-the-black-actors-dilemma/

 

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2012/08/11/the-help-on-the-wrong-side-of-history/

 

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/08/28/i-just-made-this-shit-up-per-stockett/

 

 

The screenplay for The Green Book was written by Nick Vallelonga (Tony Lip’s son), Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly (names are in the same order that the screenplay lists)

Here’s some of what Nick Vallelonga stated about the story’s creation:

“I knew that one day I would make a film about it and so I did extensive research, including interviewing my father and Dr. Shirley about all of it. When I was finally ready to write the script, I told the story to a good friend, Brian Hayes Currie, to see if he wanted to write it with me.”

In the article Currie gets in touch with Farrelly, and Vallelonga states:

“I had been waiting my whole life to get this film made and was always planning to direct it myself, most likely as a small indie film. But when I met Pete, something clicked. Brian had pitched it to him, but Pete also wanted to hear the story from my perspective, so I told him everything, poured my heart out. It was very emotional for all three of us, a story about fathers and family, a story about changing minds and hearts.”

“With Pete’s heartfelt reaction, I knew immediately that I was safe in handing him my father’s story. We agreed right then and there that the three of us would write and produce, and Pete would direct.”

Link: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/la-en-mn-writing-green-book-20181218-story.html

 

So, based on this interview its clear that the tale is about Tony Lip and its from his perspective. Okay, I get that. Point blank, Don Shirley is a means to an end, imho.

At least Shirley’s genius on the piano was kept intact. For more on Donald Shirley, please read this article:

 

Link: https://hollywoodprogressive.com/green-book/

 

Here’s an article from Indie Wire written by Tambay Obenson that goes more in depth into how Shirley’s character was presented:

“The “Magical Negro” archetype is typically rooted in a white screenwriter’s ignorance of any genuine African-American experience. He’s typically patient, sometimes wise, and usually has some sort of magical power. His ultimate function is to help the white protagonist overcome some major character flaw.

In the case of “Green Book,” Shirley is only allowed to hint at his family history, with minor references to an estranged brother we never meet. His only real communication is with Mortensen’s demonstrably racist — though, we are led to believe — big-hearted Tony Lip, whom he hires as his driver and bodyguard while embarking on a tour through southern states in the early 1960s.”

Obenson goes on to state “Mortensen’s Lip, on the other hand, is given a full, complex life – a family, including a concerned wife, with children, a father, brothers, former employers, and more. Ali’s steely Shirley helps Lip become an improved version of himself, while Shirley himself remains a mystery all the way through the credits; he’s little more than a specter, designed to help Vallelonga negotiate his prejudices.”

Link: https://www.indiewire.com/2018/11/green-book-mahershala-ali-magical-negro-1202022226/

 

Reading of the full article is a must, in addition to the comments. Same old, same old. People who wanna have the warm and fuzzies over the film are coming at Mr. Obenson.

Ah, I know it well. I’ve got comments on this site and have been in several internet and twitter arguments over the “truth” and “beauty” of The Help.

May I suggest this post for those who need to get WOKE?

Link: https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/05/09/facts-surrounding-the-help/

 

After downloading and reading the The Green Book script several times, I gotta agree with Mr. Obenson. To any new readers of this site, I’m old enough to recall the 1960s and segregation. And while today’s audience may not know of Donald Shirley, in my household the piano was front and center, as my mom insisted that all her children take classical piano lessons.

So classical music is in my blood. And jazz.

Talented African American musicians like Donald Shirley were pretty much standard listening, just like

Violinist Stuff Smith 

Pianist Hazel Scott

Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton

Organist Jimmy Smith

Organist Shirley Scott

 

Now, let me introduce the virtuouso himself, Don Shirley.  Here’s a snipet from a documentary on Dr. Shirley:

 

I suspect this is the fiesty side of Donald Shirley that the film didn’t show very much. Notice how Dr. Shirley proudly displays a picture of his family, mentioning all his brothers as “Dr.” Now please remember that when reading the bullshit excuse Peter Farrelly gives about Shirley being estranged from his family (or so he claims, which is contrary to what the family states. Of course Farrelly’s version is the one far too many moviegoers are taking as the gospel truth)

 

 

Here’s a clip of Don Shirley playing live:

 

 

 

Pianist Don Shirley passed away in 2013. I’ve included a link to his full obituary. I’ve also highlighted the names listed as next of kin:

Donald Shirley, a Pianist With His Own Genre, Dies at 86

 

Donald Shirley, a pianist and composer who gathered classical music with jazz and other forms of popular music under a singular umbrella after being discouraged from pursuing a classical career because he was black, died on April 6 at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.

. . . He is survived by a brother, Maurice, and a half-sister, Edwina Shirley Nalchawee.

 

Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/29/arts/music/donald-shirley-pianist-and-composer-dies-at-86.html

 

I didn’t do any hard core research. Just checked out the online obit listed by the NY Times, dated 4/29/2013. See, there’s this thing called the internet. And should you wish to find someone, a search can be done.

 

Now, here’s writer/director Peter Farrelly’s response where he throws an intern or maybe an assistant under the bus:

“We were under the impression there weren’t a lot of family members, but in the last month we’ve found out that there are family members. I feel bad about that, I wish we could have done more. To be honest, the people looking into it just didn’t find them—they screwed up.”  – quote by Peter Farrelly from Newsweek Magazine

Link: https://www.newsweek.com/2018/11/30/peter-farrelly-green-book-interview-1211947.html

 

“They have a right to their opinion, but when we went down that road, we looked into the heirs of Don Shirley, and unfortunately it wasn’t the family. The heirs were friends,” the director told Variety.  “When we found out about the family, we tried to embrace them, and they’re not having it right now, and it’s very disappointing.”

“I don’t think it would have changed the movie at all,” Farrelly continued, “This is a movie about a two month period in these men’s lives. It’s not about him and his family. It really isn’t.”

Link: https://variety.com/2019/film/news/green-book-viggo-mortensen-responds-backlash-shirley-family-1203099060

 

Hmm.  Well I guess one can’t argue with that. I mean, when all three men sat down to discuss the story, Vallelonga states:

“It was very emotional for all three of us, a story about fathers and family, a story about changing minds and hearts.”

There’s that pesky word “family” again. So if “family” is mentioned as being so important, why wasn’t Don Shirley’s family included at some point, ya know, BEFORE the final script was done?

The direct answer comes once again from Farrelly: “The truth of the matter is, the story came from Tony Lip’s side.”

And remember this quote from the LA Times: “We agreed right then and there that the three of us would write and produce, and Pete would direct.”

This was their baby, and no one else (like the Shirley family) could dare come in to possibly alter their vision.

In addition Peter Farrelly admits this: “I don’t want to lead people to believe that every word is true—it isn’t.”

I spotted “True Story” and “Truth” in far too many articles on The Green Book that gave me a sense of deja vu. Because I’d seen the same thing occur when I researched what was being spun about The Help. And to a lesser degree, The Blind Side.

I found an excellent article that goes into this very subject from the Chicago Tribune, by writer Nina Metz:

“Though the film has been marketed as the true and definitive version of how these two men processed issues of race and racism in America, it’s filtered only through the prism of the Vallelonga family memories. (All three of the screenwriters are white.)

And many of us in the media have helped to solidify the movie’s marketing. Here’s Time magazine, for example: “According to Vallelonga, everything depicted in the film ‘Green Book’ happened in real life.”

Link: https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/movies/ct-ent-should-biopics-be-accurate-0110-story.html

 

Yes! Thank you Nina Metz. Many folks (of various races) have been complaining about this tactic for far too long.  

 

In The Blind Side, the movie takes liberties with Michael Oher’s real life experience of playing football. His real life athletic school days are stripped in order to have cute scenes where not only Sandra Bullock’s character teaches him that protecting the quarterback is like protecting her family, but her grammar school aged son can be the “brains” of the operation when colleges come to call.

It’s my understanding that the way he was portrayed in the movie didn’t sit well with the real Michael Oher, and I don’t blame him. He’s penned his own account about his time with the Tuohy family, but the movie is already out there, and for better or for worse, this is how his character will remain on film and possibly thought of by those who’ve viewed the movie.

NPR.Org has this review of the movie:

“John Lee Hancock’s julep-sweet screenplay pretty much turns the book’s measured account of Oher’s story into a feel-good fantasy for white liberals. The film doesn’t spend much time delving into big-picture questions, and it’s content to trade in stereotypes when the camera wanders to the less affluent side of the Tennessee tracks.

But as ever in Hollywood, the based-on-a-true-story defense will probably provide a certain amount of cover. Hancock’s only aiming for a crowd pleaser, and by not challenging the established playbook for inspirational sports dramas, he’s no doubt got one.”

Link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120456017

 

Poster for The Blind Side

 

Link: https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/10/14/theres-something-about-celia/

 

Here’s a Washington Post article on what Michale Oher has to say about his depiction in the movie:

Oher has long said his character in the 2009 Sandra Bullock movie was inaccurate and not just because his character in the movie is portrayed as a rather simple-minded kid. Oher takes particular issue with the film’s depiction of him as a football novice until he was taken in by the Tuohy family, who is credited in the film as shaping Oher into the Ole Miss player who became a first-round draft pick in 2009.

“I always knew how to play football growing up,” Oher said (via Yahoo Sports) ahead of his 2013 Super Bowl with the Ravens. “Playing football is what got me to this point.”

Oher’s ex-teammates on the Ravens have also stood up for him, including Kelechi Osemele who attested Oher, the actual person, is not the same man Hollywood imagined.

“He’s nothing like that,” Osemele said in a 2013 article posted to the team’s Web site called “The Real Michael Oher.”

“I can’t even imagine Mike being like the guy that they portrayed on the movie,” Osemele continued.

Former teammate Matt Birk agreed.

“This may come as a shock, but they tend to embellish things in Hollywood,” he said. “Real life Mike Oher is better.”

Link:  https://wwwashingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2015/06/17/michael-oher-says-the-blind-side-hurt-his-nfl-career/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a38ec4214f33

 

I’d advise readers to also check out the comments section of the Washington Post article, as, true to form, some posters miss Oher’s point and gloss over his frustation.

 

It has to be hard on Oher to be confused with the depiction of the slow but endearing character of the film, but then, like The Help and The Green Book,, the film was meant to hit that sweet spot for white audiences.

The Green Book screenplay reads as if its a son’s love letter to his late father. So please don’t try to tell me that Donald Shirley’s character got his due. He didn’t.

The Don Shirley in the video is nothing like what the screenplay portrays. I’m not saying Dr. Shirley didn’t act dignified and uptight on occasion. But the script has him behaving that way far too many times, when Shirley doesn’t appear to be a man to suffer fools lightly, no matter who they are.

Erasing Shirley’s family by having the character simply stating: “I have a brother somewhere. We used to get together once in a while. . .but it got more and more difficult to keep in touch. That’s the curse of being a musician–you’re always on the road, like a carnival worker, or a criminal. It took a toll on my marriage as well” is all kinds of wrong.

Oh, and there’s one more paragraph that glosses over his ex-wife and marriage:

 

Two paragraphs on Shirley’s family and wife does not a “buddy” movie make, not after reading all the attention given to Tony Lip and his relatives in the screenplay. Later on Tony Lip suggests that Shirley contact his estranged brother. Apparently the same one who has called the film “a symphony of lies.” And what about Shirley’s love life? The screenplay mentions Shirley’s tryst with a white male, then clumsily drops it, as the screenplay returns once more to Tony.

Yet again, I’m reminded that this isn’t about Don Shirley. It’s about Tony Vallelonga, as written by his son. And its part comedy, part drama.

To wrap this up, for those who don’t plan on seeing the movie, please download the screenplay. I quite enjoy the written word, as opposed to being swayed by a performance that can mask a movie’s flaws.

Link: https://www.simplyscripts.com/2019/01/06/the-green-book-screenplay-for-your-consideration/

I truly wish Mahershala Ali all the best.  I remember enjoying his storyline (with his superpowered child Isabelle) on The 4400. Ali didn’t have to, but he reached out and called the Shirley family:

“I got a call from Mahershala Ali, a very, very respectful phone call, from him personally. He called me and my Uncle Maurice in which he apologized profusely if there had been any offense,” said Edwin. “What he said was, ‘If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry. I did the best I could with the material I had. I was not aware that there were close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character.’”

Link: https://shadowandact.com/the-real-donald-shirley-green-book-hollywood-swallowed-whole

 

I’m sorry to say that this is par for the course. Black characters are used far too often for that peep show factor, but their backstories are dropped for character development and focus on a white protagonist. Damn. And they even took the name The Green Book.

For more on The real Green Book, please read this post:

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/finding-bookers-place-amon-the-green-book/

 

For more on the representation problems in The Help: 

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/did-the-maids-really-need-skeeter-to-get-published/

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/skeeter-phelan-doesnt-care/

 

US book cover for The Help

 

UK Cover of the Help AKA The cover they dared not put on US bookshelves

 

The Help Movie Poster (US version)

 

The tear-jerker Imitation of Life promos. No question who this “Buddy” movie is really about:

The two versions of Imitation of Life, from 1934 and 1959

 

I fully expect Farrelly and co to win a Best Screenplay Oscar for The Green Book.

Perhaps Mahershala Ali can win a second best supporting actor Oscar.

Viggo may even sneak in an Oscar for Best Actor if the vote is split between Christian Bale and Remi Malek. You never know.

And since this is America, a film about a lovable, reformed racist could very well win Best Picture.

 

Update: Per Variety writer Nick Vallelonga deleted his twitter account containing a tweet that supports Donald Trump’s unproven claim:

 

‘Green Book’ Writer Deletes Twitter Account After Anti-Muslim Tweet Stirs More Controversy

 

Seriously? If Vallelonga would jump in to validate Trump’s lie, then his insistance that Don Shirley gave him permission gives me pause. . . 

 

**Vallelonga has issued an apology, though its still not clear if he agrees with Trump’s debunked tweet. Link to the full apology is listed below***

Link: https://deadline.com/2019/01/green-book-apology-nick-vallelonga-2015-tweet-muslim-participant-media-condemns-1202533378/

 

In the article by Variety there’s also Peter Farrelly’s admission and subsequent apology about flashing his penis on several movie sets in the 1990s. No. Just. No. 

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