The 2021 Oscars have come and gone. The Best Picture of 2020 is apparently Nomadland. There are probably a lot of people who disagree with this decision. There are even more people who are wondering, “wait, what movie?” Although most of the nominees are available for streaming, the train wreck that was 2020 seems impossible for there to be a “best of” anything. Award shows now feel like they exist a parallel universe where we weren’t all separated from each other for a year.
It’s funny to me how recently certain cultural touchstones acted as a unifying force. No matter how briefly, everyone had an opinion on the Oscars the day after they happened. People threw watch parties around them. And I remember the 2020 Oscars, when I didn’t know the last thing we would all witness as a society was Billie Eilish making weird faces at presenters and performers she didn’t recognize.
The purpose of this series is to discuss the Best Picture winners that most people believe aren’t really “best pictures.” And yet, after this year’s Oscars ceremony the idea of most people agreeing on any of the nominees seems almost quaint. So, this month, I’m going back to a lifetime ago – two years – to remind everyone of what it used to be like. I’m looking at Peter Faralley’s Green Book, the Best Picture winner in a lineup that included several movies that didn’t come close to deserving the nomination. After this was announced, commenters went back thirty years and were reminded of Driving Miss Daisy winning the top prize while Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing hadn’t even been nominated. People thought it was a silly decision, something that has persisted since.
Do the Right Thing is a film that’s incredibly confrontational about race relations in the U.S. and doesn’t offer viewers a happy ending. It’s also timeless. That movie could play in theaters today and be equally relevant. Driving Miss Daisy is a dated look at racism and postures that all the dark times are in the past. White people have come to their senses after decades of looking down on black people and now – great news everyone – we’ve fixed everything!
Green Book takes the same approach to appeal to AMPAS’s conservative viewpoints. It obviously worked in the short term. But in the long term? Green Book was destined to end up in a series like this.
Green Book tells the true story of NYC bouncer Tony Vallelonga (also called Tony Lip and played by Viggo Mortensen) during his time in the early 1960s as the personal driver of classical musician Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Doc Shirley’s record company has scheduled a tour that includes cities in the deep south, which presents obvious problems for a man like Shirley. The film takes its name from the Green Book that, at the time, listed businesses in the South that would accommodate and serve black people. Lip and Doc don’t get along with each other – and, in an interesting twist, the racial dynamics are reversed. Shirley is an educated man who speaks several languages, performed his concerts at the White House, lives in a luxury apartment, and has a servant, while Lip is more dependent on street smarts and can barely write letters home to his wife. Still, Shirley faces rampant discrimination and is not allowed to even stay in the same hotels Lip is. He’s even physically assaulted by the locals and targeted by the police. Additionally, Lip’s lifestyle constantly annoys Shirley, leading to tension between the two men as Lip claims he’s more “black” than Shirley.
It’s somewhat difficult for me to articulate why this movie doesn’t work. On the surface it’s a feel-good story backed up by some effective performances, particularly from Ali, one of the most talented actors working today. But the more I think about it, the more I realize what the movie is saying about the U.S. and our society. And its message is completely wrong.
I’m not familiar with the real Dr. Don Shirley. I know he has the pedigree the film portrays him as having and the fact I didn’t know about him until I saw the movie feels like a failure on my part. But the way he’s depicted in the film makes him virtually impossible to sympathize with. He’s a jerk. Shirley’s condescending to Lip and doesn’t show him any affection or friendship. Meanwhile, Lip’s always trying to introduce him to new experiences – not necessarily “black” experiences, but to things he’s excited about. One scene has Lip (who, in the film, has an insatiable appetite and is able to eat 26 hot dogs in one sitting) pulling over to get a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Now, I personally am not a fan of that restaurant, but I don’t look down on the millions and millions of people who eat there every day. Shirley can barely comprehend the existence of fried chicken. Yes, Lip falls back on a racist stereotype and presents it as the food of “Shirley’s people,” but Shirley’s utter disgust at the situation turned me off. He’s depicted, frankly, as the sort of person Fox News rallies against when they shake their fists at people with NPR tote bags.
Additionally, the titular Green Book is almost irrelevant to the plot. It’s shown but we never see Shirley or Lip use it to any great degree. In fact, sometimes plot points are undermined by the existence of the book. Why should Shirley be surprised he can’t try on a suit when he has a guide book that says what places serve black people? And couldn’t he have cross checked the venues against the book and see which ones would properly accommodate him? The mostly it’s used for is to see what hotels he can check into. Now, it was obviously wrong for Shirley to be treated with anything less than the utmost respect anywhere, but why name your film after something of virtually no consequence?
And finally, I want to address something that derails the movie for me. There’s a scene in which Lip buys off cops after they arrest Shirley and another man for having sex in a YMCA shower. I get the point the filmmakers are trying to make – Shirley is an eternal outsider who doesn’t fit in with any part of “mainstream” society. But this was a real person. There’s no evidence that Shirley was gay – he certainly never came out in his life. Changing someone’s biography like that feels like a cheap ploy to squash in more themes about repression, even when that’s already been covered extensively by Shirley’s treatment as a black man in the South. Why bother? What was the point? The only thing I can think of is that discrimination based on sexuality is something younger Americans are far more familiar with – we lived in a time when gay people weren’t allowed to get married and there are still far too many people try to cite “religious exemptions” in order to continue to deny service to gay people. Emotionally, it’s something that’s more familiar to people now.
But that just allows the filmmakers to romanticize the time period even more. Black people weren’t just denied service at hotels. Some people flat out wanted to murder them for being inferior. State governments refused to allow integration. And – I can’t believe this myth is still being perpetuated – northern states were not some magical place where black people were treated as equals. There’s a scene late in the film when Lip and Shirley are pulled over on their way back to New York. Earlier, they had been profiled by police in the south and ended up in prison. But the officer in the north helps the two replace a flat tire.
There’s not a chance that would have happened. There may not have been discriminatory laws to the degree there were in the south, but to pretend like NYC was some sort of paradise for black people is completely dishonest.
Green Book is a waste. The film is partially saved by the very talented Ali, but it’s not enough to overcome the film’s biggest flaw. Once again, Hollywood tries to sugar coat the history of race relations in the U.S. Things may have been bad once, sure, but there were moments of bright spots like the friendship between Lip and Shirley. Besides, thankfully it’s all in the past! The latter isn’t close to being true and the former is like being happy about finding a lit match deep in Mammoth Cave. Sure, it’s a bright spot but can you really say it’s doing much good?