One of the most interesting aspects of the latest Oscar race has been the arguments about Green Book. There seem to be three categories. Film twitter seems largely opposed to the film. There’s the sense that the critics are split on its artistic merits, when that’s not entirely true. It’s 80 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t great but suggests that for every critic who bitched about it, four liked it. Audiences love it as evident by the cinemascore.
Jaya Saxena of GQ listed some of the criticisms, and much of it is BS. Viggo Mortensen caused an early controversy when he used the N-word in the context of noting that it is despicable. There were some unfortunate tweets and acts by director Peter Farrelley in the past, although that has nothing to do with the artistic merit of the film. The family of Doc Shirley claims the character’s relationship with them was different than the depiction in the film, but they don’t have much support from others who knew him, and the writer of the film had interviews with the man. The views on the family touch on bigger questions on Green Book: one of authenticity, and the sense that a story was changed to create a white savior narrative.
Mark Harris wrote one of the early pieces that set the critical discussion: “Who Was the Green Book For”? He observed that the box office was weak. The official link refers to the movie as a flop.
Two weeks ago, the movie arrived. The crowds did not. Following a disappointing opening on 25 screens, Green Book expanded to 1,000 for Thanksgiving weekend and finished a somewhat wan ninth. According to IndieWire box-office analyst Tom Brueggemann, its cumulative gross of under $8 million makes it “a work in progress, with a struggle ahead.” That struggle may offer a lesson that after 50 years, a particular kind of movie about black and white America has, at long last, run its course.
He then added that other films have made Green Book redundant.
What Green Book may not know is who it’s for. The portion of the white moviegoing audience that needs to be handled with this much care and flattery is getting smaller every year, and the nonwhite audience, at this point, seems justifiably wary of buying a version of someone else’s fantasy that it has been sold many, many times before; besides, it has other options. Underlying the bet that Green Book would be a crowd-pleaser is a long-outdated presupposition about the composition of the crowd — a belief that racism can only be explained to white audiences via a white character, and a concurrent belief that those white audiences are pivotal to the success of any movie. But they’re not. This weekend, two movies directed by black men, Creed II and Widows, made the top ten and handily outgrossed Green Book. While that’s not a common occurrence, it’s no longer a headline-worthy exception — and in a year that also includes Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, and (shortly) Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, moviegoers in search of black characters no longer need to look over the shoulder of a white director or co-star in order to find them. One might look at these movies as among the first to belong to a post–Get Out era, in which audiences want their views of race in America served up with slyness and/or dystopic skepticism rather than inspirational teachable moments. But even a historical drama by a white director that trafficked in exactly those moments, 2016’s Hidden Figures, did so by centering three women of color without a white character to explain “them” to a presumed white “us” (or, worse, explain them to themselves). It grossed $169 million in the U.S., a figure Green Book is unlikely to come anywhere near.
At this point, Green Book made $139 million worldwide, so the suggestion that in addition to lacking artistic merit, it failed to connect to audiences doesn’t quite work.
Folks I know have really liked it, which provides a different perspective on who it’s for. It might not connect with film twitter, but it connected with my parents, my godfather, my brothers and my best friend, an Indian-American med student. There is an arrogance in suggesting that Tony’s story isn’t worth telling, and that America should already be on-board with the left-wing critics when it comes to deeper appreciation for social ills.
Conservative film critic Sonny Bunch considers the film fine, but unimaginative. He wonders if the backlash was due to heightened expectations about how well it’ll do at the box office.
The presumptive crowning of “Green Book” as an end-of-year front-runner — its championing by Oscar watchers like Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells and Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone; the National Board of Review choosing it as best picture of the year — rankles. In a year with envelope-pushing films like “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Roma” and “BlacKkKlansman” and “Sorry to Bother You,” one needn’t be a radical (lord knows I’m not) to feel some kinship with the generation of critics who rejected efforts by the New York Times’s Bosley Crowther to snuff out “Bonnie and Clyde” in favor of more respectable fare.
One wonders if 2018’s crop of films isn’t set to be a replay of 1968’s Oscar ceremony, one that pits a faded genre’s final champion against a new breed of prestige pictures. As pleasantly entertaining and easygoing as it is, if “Green Book” is the best, most interesting, most thought-provoking movie you’ve seen this year, I have to wonder how many films you’ve watched.
This may have changed with Roma as the obvious frontrunner. I like the Green Book, and I wouldn’t want it to win that race (I’d also be happier if Black Panther won.) But this debate doesn’t seem to be about whether a three star film gets more credit than it deserves. There is a sense that some people just don’t want this type of film to exist any more.
Two late night shows have done parodies of white savior movies.
The reason for the focus on Tony is relatively simple. One of the writers is the son of Tony Vallelonga, so he’s going to emphasize his father’s growth. And while Doc Shirley has an arc, Tony had more growing to do.
It seems that people want a different type of movie about Doc Shirley, a musician who was a very interesting man. And there’s no reason they can’t get it. If someone can come up with a good screenplay, the financial success of this film and the likely Oscar for Mahershala Ali increase the chances it’ll happen. Black Panther, Widows, Blackkklansman, The Hate You Give, and If Beale Street Could Talk all show that Hollywood is willing to support the type of films critics want to see. Green Book isn’t taking anything away from it.
There is value to this story. It is messier than Driving Miss Daisy, acknowledging Shirley as accomplished, while showing what makes him unique. If nothing else, it has increased awareness of his music.
It also takes artistic license in the depiction of Juri Taht, a member of the Don Shirley Trio as Russian rather then Estonian, but that’s a different story.