Why Green Book winning an Oscar is upsetting


Green Book won big at the Academy Awards, and many are not happy to hear it due to its controversial background.

The biggest surprise of the 91st Academy Awards may not have been that Green Book won for Best Picture. It was that Green Book got the green light at production, at film festivals, and ultimately took home the most prestigious award a film could hope for.

The controversy behind Green Book making it this far lies in the damaging message that it seems to portray: that there were silver linings during the segregation of this nation and we have good white people to thank for them.

Green Book is based on the true story of African-American classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali)  and his relationship with an Italian-American bouncer, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen), who drives him around while he’s on tour in the South. The story, written by Vallelonga’s son, is supposed to be a love letter to a friendship that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

Instead of portraying a relationship that happened despite the times, Green Book comes off as a sanitized version of a time where most African-Americans experienced injustice, racism, and abuse. This was a moment in history where lynching was more common then a black man being chauffeured around.

Thus, a movie fixated on a privileged and infrequent occurrence with no immediate reference to the cruel realities is a disservice to African-Americans. Also, the film relied heavily on hamfisted attempts to show how much Lip helped Dr. Shirley, like teaching him how to eat fried chicken, which strongly upholds the white savior trope, and that’s only one of many problematic symbols the film totes.

Somehow this movie made good at TIFF and received high praise from critics, without anyone seeing how numbing the audience to the realities that existed within the Civil Rights era only gives ammunition to those open to discard blame. Still, even with all of the applause, Green Book‘s actual box office performance was mediocre. The audience production hoped to woo didn’t care too much for the film and with good reason. Many have been vocal since about their disapproval of this film’s tropes and its troubling angles.

The global reaction to Green Book‘s win at the Oscars was immediate. A lot of people were not happy with this choice. Spike Lee, who was front and center at the awards for his film BlacKkKlansman, was obviously appalled and nearly stormed out of the ceremony. Lee later explained his reaction: “No, I thought it was courtside at the Garden, and the ref made a bad call.”

Twitter itself was in an uproar that Green Book had won, and many vocalized their displeasure:

The controversies surrounding Green Book doesn’t stop at its problematic plot. Viggo Mortensen experienced backlash for using the N-word while on tour for the film. Dr. Shirley’s family refuses to endorse it. Vallelonga has defended the script he wrote, which is based on his father’s perception of his relationship with Dr. Shirley (Shirley died in 2013). He claims that he didn’t know Shirley’s family existed and therefore never reached out to them for feedback on the film.

Excuse us while we do a Chadwick right now.

Despite all the baggage, Green Book succeeded in one-upping other movies trying to make similar points. Both Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman were up for Best Picture, and they both offered stories that arguably brought something more important to the conversation, including diversity behind the camera as well as in front of it.

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Yes, it would be nice to have a positive story in the midst of the Civil Rights era. There is, however, a right way to portray a story like that. Hopefully, our continued discussion on how Green Book is damaging could serve as a lesson for film executives and writers everywhere.

If you want to make a movie about a marginalized group, maybe you should check with them first to see if you’re doing them justice.