Green Book turns out to be a movie lots of people like. It’s also one of two movies, along with Bohemian Rhapsody, that goes against the grain of social media acceptability. It beat A Star Is Born, Roma, and Beale Street in Toronto. It then beat The Favourite at the Globes. And now, it’s beaten every movie up for the PGA. That, my friends, is the preferential ballot at work. Most people don’t think about that, of course, when talking about this win. It is a little like The Big Short winning in 2015 — unexpected until you factor in how votes might have gone down. Clearly, Green Book has number one love, but it also has upper ballot support, meaning people are pushing it to the top of their ballots even if it’s not their number one.
Green Book is the one movie in the race you can sit anyone down in front of and they will get it, if not love it (or not). Longtime readers of this site know that in general, prior to the preferential ballot especially, this is your number one rule of a Best Picture winner. The films that Generation Woke on Twitter wants to win are films that reflect a specific kind of ideology but it remains hard to tell what their tastes actually are. Do they really love (or hate) these movies, or are many of them simply virtue signaling.
How could Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, two films that were savaged for various reasons, keep on winning major honors? Some say they just aren’t that good, or too tame, too old-fashioned. Others point out issues in directors’ past (Bryan Singer’s, or the somewhat silly stuff they dug up on Peter Farrelly). There are plenty of ways you can look at someone’s life and cherry-pick things to fling out into the newly minted White Woke Twitter mass hysteria and get back the desired reaction. I tell you what, there are things I’ve done and said, I am sure, that people could throw out and send an angry mob after me for one reason or another. We are flawed, most all of us. We make mistakes. We are all learning and above all, we’re human — so we’re kind of stuck with one another. We can keep warring among ourselves, forming tribes, attacking each other, or we can find a way to come together and understand each other.
Ironically, both Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody have these messages baked into them. In a parallel universe, not one driven by strident purity, people might marvel at the fact that these two films have for their central heroes gay characters. Trust me, I remember a time when stories with gay characters at their center were marginalized. Now they’re mainstream. So sure, they aren’t “perfect” for strident folks, but step back a bit and look at how cool that is anyway.
In the game of finding the film people like best, which is what a consensus vote is all about, there is always that age-old argument of whether the deserving film is winning Best Picture.
With 20 years experience in all this behind me, I can say with absolute certainty that once a movie starts winning, people start hating it. It suddenly and immediately deflates. Remember how 12 Years a Slave was the frontrunner heading out of Telluride? Well that too, believe it or not, in the pre-Trump era, was thought to be “not good enough” by many of the same people going after Green Book and for exactly the opposite reason — they didn’t believe they should vote for it “just because” it was a story about slavery made a black film director. In the end, 12 Years a Slave barely won Best Picture.
Green Book now needs a Best Director nomination at the Oscars to solidify its position in the final stretch. Last year, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards was hit pretty hard and in the end what probably derailed it was the lack of a directing nod. That meant it probably wasn’t going to win Best Picture. If Peter Farrelly misses a Best Director slot for the Oscar, then you can pretty much conclude that Green Book can’t win. I think it has a pretty good shot at winning at the moment, even with the attacks the filmmakers have sustained.
And in fact, in some ways, maybe because of those attacks. Maybe people sit down to watch the movie and think, “Why are people so angry about this movie?” There are many reasons, some valid and some more dubious. Maybe it matters, maybe it doesn’t. But most people watching Green Book would have to work pretty hard to find anything that is outwardly offensive in it. I can rattle off a list of offenses in every single movie up for Best Picture — I won’t list them here but if I wanted to I could make a lot of noise about them. Probably the movie that doesn’t offend in any way is Black Panther.
Art, when done right, is a little rough around the edges. We are all works in progress. The best films reveal this fundamental truth about humanity.
I think we all need to do a lot more listening. But there are people who can suggest this better than I can. Here is the first black filmmaker to ever be nominated for Best Director on Green Book:
John Singleton on Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book”
Two men — one black, the other white, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in a ’62 Cadillac DeVille rolling down a highway debating black culture. So much is explored in “Green Book,” Peter Farrelly’s bromance about Tony Lip, a hunky Bronx-born Italian-American Copacabana bouncer, and Dr. Don Shirley, an erudite, multilingual, closeted gay, classically trained pianist who lives above Carnegie Hall.
Watching this picture as an African-American I was predisposed to think it was going the way of others exploring connections between black and white characters: Oh, here we go, the Magic Negro trope is here again. I could not be more pleasantly surprised and excited to be proven wrong. There is a saying in filmmaking: sometimes what is the most profound thing is to keep it simple.
“Green Book” is simple but honest to the characters and time. Viggo Mortensen, who always embodies a role like a new costume, is amazing as Tony Lip. It’s not just the offhanded way he mouths off Calabrese-inflected Italian, it’s the way he organically brings to life this guy, a man without pretensions. Conversely, Mahershala Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley as a self-made man, who eschews all pretensions of what black men were prejudiced to be defined as. He speaks clearly, does not condone violence or theft. Ali plays Dr. Shirley as a self-modeled man of his times. Fighting against all social norms.
With this picture, Farrelly has evolved into a classic director in the vein of Billy Wilder. The humor is juxtaposed by pathos. Some of the most powerful moments simply seem to happen: black workers down South pausing to view a black man, immaculately suited, stepping out a car driven by a white chauffeur. Or two men in the rain, when one says: “If I’m not white enough, and I’m not black enough, and I’m not man enough, then what am I?” When Tony Lip gets Dr. Shirley out of a dicey situation at a YMCA, he simply tells him, “Don’t worry about it. I’ve been working in clubs in New York City my whole life.
I know it’s … it’s a complicated world.’
Simple but complex. In “Green Book,” the characters are who they are. They don’t change as people; the worlds they embody evolve because these two different men simply become lifelong friends. How profound. How complex.
John Singleton was the first African-American nominated for the directing Oscar, for his 1991 debut, “Boyz N the Hood.” His other films include “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Shaft.”
So people might ask me, do you think Green Book is “worthy” of a Best Picture win? I don’t know how to answer that adequately. Do I think it’s a movie that will stand the test of time? Yes, I do. Probably more than many might think. Especially if it doesn’t win Best Picture. Do I think the Oscars are about finding the best film of the year? Hell no, people. What do you think we’ve been doing all this time? Did the Social Network win? No. Did Citizen Kane win? No. That isn’t what this is about. Thousands of people vote on these awards. They almost always simply pick the movie they like best. Can external factors derail the appeal they feel? Yes, they can. Changing perception is always the name of the game in taking down a frontrunner. But let’s always remember what the Oscars are and what they’re not. They’re not the National Society of Film Critics. They are not the Stanley Kramer prize. They are the industry rewarding the film that they feel was the most successful at what it is they want to do: tell good stories, move people.
Oscar folks should remember the kicking puppy rule of Oscar coverage: if criticizing a film feels like kicking a puppy, that criticism is likely going to backfire. This was true of The King’s Speech, true of Argo, true of The Shape of Water. And it is most definitely true of Green Book. When people watch that film they remember the ending. They remember what it said at the end, how it said it and how it sends you back out into the world feeling a little bit warmer towards other people. That’s not nothing.