Oscar winner Green Book accused of ‘whitewash’

Driving Dr Shirley: Tony Lip is played by Viggo Mortensen, and Dr Don Shirley by Mahershala Ali.

Is this year’s Best Picture a masterpiece — or a whitewash of history? Green Book tells the story of a “true friendship” between a black concert pianist and his white chauffeur in 1962.

On Sunday night, Green Book won the Oscar for Best Picture.

“The whole story is about love. It’s about loving each other despite our differences,” said director Peter Farrelly.

The film tells the story of two unlikely friends: Dr Don Shirley, a black musician, and his white driver Tony Vallelonga, also called Tony Lip. It takes place in 1962, during Shirley’s concert tour through the southern United States.

The South was steeped in racism and segregation at the time. For example, the “green book” in the title was a guide to hotels and restaurants where black people would be welcome.

The screenplay was written by Vallelonga’s son, based on stories his father told him. Vallelonga is racist when the film begins, but he changes his views as he gets to know Shirley.

Farrelly said he wanted to make a film that would “change people’s hearts and minds.”

However, it has been criticised for its portrayal of race. Some have complained that a story about a groundbreaking black musician was told from the perspective of a racist white man.

Shirley’s brother has accused the film of being “full of lies”.

And in a review for The Root, Monique Judge argued that Green Book glosses over the “true horrors” of racism at the time. She called it a “white saviour movie.”

But other critics disagree. It is not a white saviour movie because “the two characters save one another,” wrote Owen Gleiberman in Variety, “which is a very different thing.”

Going south

So is Green Book whitewashing racism? Or is it an honest attempt to do some good, at a time when race relations are so difficult in America?

And how much truth can we expect from films “based on true stories”? Things will always be left out in order to tell a neat version of events. Should we accept this? Or demand more authenticity from filmmakers?

You Decide

  1. Did Green Book deserve to win Best Picture?

Activities

  1. Write the opening scene in your own movie about friendship.

Some People Say...

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.”

Audre Lorde

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The film won three Oscars in total: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali (who played Shirley), and Best Original Screenplay.
What do we not know?
The true nature of the men’s relationship. Shirley’s brother says they were never friends. However, there are tapes of Shirley saying that the two men “got to be friendly with one another”.

Word Watch

Dr Don Shirley
Shirley was a child prodigy who began learning piano aged two. He went on to earn a doctorate in music and became a well-known composer and musician.
Segregation
Separating people of different races. Segregation laws were still legal in some parts of America until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.
Groundbreaking
Shirley was told not to play classical music because America would not accept it from a black musician. Instead, he invented his own style which blended classical, jazz and popular styles.