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.

In an awards season that has been full of surprises, Sunday night’s Oscars were no different. Many predicted that Netflix’s Mexican family drama Roma would take the top prize; instead, it went to Green Book, a film about friendship overcoming racism.

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

The film tells the story of two unlikely friends: Dr Don Shirley, an African-American classical pianist, and his white chauffeur and bodyguard 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; the “green book” that the title refers to 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 about the trip after he and Shirley had become lifelong friends. When it begins, however, Vallelonga is himself racist.

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

But despite these good intentions, 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, meanwhile, is shown as someone who is cut off from his black identity; estranged from his family and unaware of Aretha Franklin. In one scene, Vallelonga teaches him to eat fried chicken (a common African-American stereotype).

The filmmakers say these scenes are based on Vallelonga’s own stories. But when the film was released, Shirley’s brother said that many were simply “lies”.

Writing for The Root, Monique Judge argued that Green Book “spoon-feeds” racism to white audiences, glossing over the “true horrors” of the time. She called it a “white saviour movie in which the white person doesn’t really save the black person from anything.”

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? A “reverse Driving Miss Daisy”, as one critic put it, in which the black character only exists to educate a white character? Or is it an honest attempt to do some good, at a time when race relations are so fraught?

And how much truth can we expect from films “based on true stories”? Things will always be twisted or left out in order to tell a neat version of events. Should we accept this? Or demand more authenticity, particularly when the subject is so sensitive?

You Decide

  1. Did Green Book deserve to win Best Picture?
  2. In 2016, the Oscars were criticised for not being diverse enough. Has Hollywood solved this problem?

Activities

  1. Write the opening scene in your own movie about friendship.
  2. Write a report on the Jim Crow laws which segregated black people in America’s South until the mid-1960s.

Some People Say...

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, 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. We know that Tony Vallelonga was hired to be Shirley’s driver and bodyguard in 1962 because of the dangers that black people faced in the South at the time. Six years earlier, the singer Nat King Cole was attacked on stage in Alabama by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
What do we not know?
The true nature of their relationship. Shirley’s brother claims they were never friends, that their relationship was strictly employer-employee. However, there are audio tapes of Shirley saying that the two men “got to be friendly with one another”, that they helped each other, and that he trusted his driver “implicitly”.

Word Watch

Dr Don Shirley
Shirley was a child prodigy who began learning piano aged two, and went on to earn a doctorate in music. He grew up to be a well-known composer and musician, who blended classical and contemporary styles.
Segregation
Separating people of different races. Segregation laws were introduced in many Southern states after slavery was abolished. These were known as “Jim Crow” laws, and were still legal until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.
Lifelong
Both men died in 2013, within months of each other.
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.
Aretha Franklin
A singer, songwriter and civil rights activist who died in August last year. She released her second album in 1962, when the film is set.
Driving Miss Daisy
A 1989 film (which also won Best Picture) about an elderly Southern white woman who befriends her black chauffeur, despite their differences.

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