It’s funny how things go, isn’t it. Not funny ha ha but funny in the most macabre sense of the word. Funny as in, oh my god this isn’t funny at all. The criticisms of Green Book are many — though they do mostly exist, let’s face it, in the internet bubble where there is only one thing to do and that’s use your hammer to find a nail. “Does that thing look like I can hammer the shit out of it? You bet it does!”
It’s too “old fashioned,” some say. Others feel it soft-pedals hard issues. Oh, and I’ve seen film writers call it flat-out racist. But none of that would stick for a movie that won Toronto, the National Board of Review, the Golden Globes, and now the Producers Guild Award. Lots of people just like the damn thing. Voting for it doesn’t make them feel like they’re good people doing good things. I’m in no position to make this case with black critics or black moviegoers. But thousands of industry voters are choosing Green Book because it moved them, it touched them — no matter what some of the film critics say. (Good lord, you’d think the movie had a scene where they drowned actual live puppies).
Voters have responded to it in the way some movies can make us respond. Because we liked the characters. We liked the dialogue. We liked the performances. We liked how it tells a story that restores our faith in friendship, at a time where most of us can’t even stand to get up in the morning and face the awful day. But boy, you’d think this was a movie trying to convince people to love the Devil himself. No, not exaggerating. Yes, literally that.
The worst crime this movie appears to have committed is that it “insults” Don Shirley’s family by getting the facts wrong, and thus insults all black people in America. But it turns out that there are tapes to back up the movie’s facts the movie depicts. Yes, folks, that’s right — straight from Don Shirley himself — tapes of Shirley speaking fondly about the relationship between the two men.
And guess what? Here’s the great thing about art in America — no one is stopping the Shirley family or anyone else from making a film from their own version Shirley’s story.
Why am I bringing this up? Because it was a shitty thing that happened to this movie. Shitty of certain film writers to accuse those who voted for and loved the film of being racists. Shitty of some to tell us that the movie was disrespectful and so were we for enjoying it. Shitty to accuse Mahershala Ali and producer Octavia Spencer of lacking awareness and sensitivity. Shitty of the internet to suddenly decide that Viggo Mortensen must be guilty of insidious crimes that he’s kept hidden. Mortensen being tracked and arbitrarily investigated on the internet right now — every single word he’s ever spoken or written is being scrutinized in an attempt to prove something is fishy about him. It’s insane. It would be my wish that voters saw this for what it was and pushed back on the attacks a bit so as not to give power to something that amounts to, essentially, an outbreak of mass hysteria.
Are there legit criticisms of the film? Sure. But the one that says the filmmakers insulted Don Shirley’s family ain’t one of them. Listen to the tapes and you’ll see how right they got it.
Here’s how Mike Flemming at Deadline put it:
I had done a long interview with Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, where those actors kept saying they found the handle on their characters by listening to a series of audio tapes featuring the actual voices of Dr. Donald Shirley and Tony Lip Vallelonga. I thought tracking down and publishing them might help swing the narrative of Green Book back to the road trip as they sat in that car together and were the only ones who witnessed the events and the institutional racism and hatred they encountered in the Jim Crow South. I got my hands on these tapes and, with the help of an editor, put them in the digestible soundbites you can hear below. It takes a while to get through them, but you might want to do it soon. I got them on the sly, and have no idea if I’ll be told to take these down.
The Shirley audio came from research done for a terrific documentary called Lost Bohemia, which included Shirley among a group of elite artists as they were being kicked out of the lofts above Carnegie Hall. The Tony Lip interviews were conducted by his son, Nick, as research for the film.
You’re encouraged to go have a listen to the excerpts from these tapes. They blow apart many of the accusations that events were fabricated or falsified. Deadline has posted a dozen clips. Here are a few of the preview descriptions:
Don Shirley describes the relationship as he saw it, between himself and Tony Lip.
Shirley describes why he called Attorney General Robert Kennedy as cops tried to shake them down.
Shirley describes how, after he played a concert, Tony Lip convinced the proprietors of a bar to bend their rules and serve a drink to a black man, and the aftermath that included escaping an armed pack of white locals.
Tony Lip describes his method in extricating Don Shirley from the delicate situation at the YMCA.
Tony Lip describes his recollection of the time Doc Shirley called Robert Kennedy to get out of jail in an attempted shakedown by police.
Tony Lip describes how he got the job driving Doc Shirley. You can hear the voice of his wife, Dolores, who is played in the film by Linda Cardellini.
Tony Lip describes the indignity of finding that Doc Shirley could entertain the guests of a posh hotel, but could not be served food in its restaurant, and how this institutionalized racism finally came to a head.
Can we please try to take a deep breath and a step back and contemplate all that’s gone on in an attempt to discredit a movie?