One of the most controversial Oscar winning films in recent memory was 2019’s Best Picture winner: Green Book. Green Book is the true story of black pianist Don Shirley and his driver Tony Vallelonga as they navigate their way through the deep south in the 1960s during one of Shirley’s concert tours. Starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in the lead roles of Don Shirley and Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga respectively, the film won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2019 along with awards for Best Supporting Actor for Ali and Best Original Screenplay for the writing team of Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Curtis, and Peter Farrelly. These wins were met with dissatisfaction from much of the film industry.
Having heard the veritable uproar that followed Green Book’s Best Picture win, I was very much interested in finding out the source of the hubbub. I’d heard good things, generally speaking, up until that point, and some friends who had seen it already sang its praises. This didn’t exactly add up, seeing as my understanding is that Spike Lee actually tried to leave the Oscars when the announcement was made out of protest. And so I sat down to watch the Best Picture of 2018.
What I saw was a wonderful, heartfelt portrait of the relationship between two men, their colour and their time made irrelevant, as they traversed what could only be described as hostile waters in the deep American South. Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are incredible. Ali’s reputation precedes him, of course, and his portrayal of Don Shirley comes so very much from the heart that it’s difficult not to feel endeared by the well-spoken and yet wide-eyed artist. Dr. Shirley is portrayed as a character who’s main demon is his liminality, caught in between several different cultures, a member of no club. Typified by his excellent monologue, “If I’m not black enough…” conveys his pain of not measuring up to any identity. His gayness doesn’t make him man enough, his musicianship doesn’t make him black enough and his skin colour doesn’t make him white enough. His Oscar was well deserved, as it consistently is with one of the best actors out there at the moment. A small injustice is that Viggo Mortensen could not have received parallel recognition for the fabulous, and, by my measure, equally strong job he did in his portrayal of Tony ‘Lip’. The chemistry they had on screen was marvelous and the relationship they portrayed blossomed as a result.
The writing is, with the possible exception of one noteworthy scene, very strong throughout. Farrely, well known for his work in comedy writing, brings the funny in a film that doesn’t necessarily feel the need to balance the heavy and light. That said, when it needs to get heavy it does. Some very strong motifs and parallels in the writing bring out some really shocking, and, at times, heart-tugging moments that add up to a lot of emotional fulfilment by the end of the film. I felt that was a contrast well achieved by them, in terms of heavier moments and the lighter ones. A lot of times with feel-good films that get serious from time to time the moments lacking frivolity tend to feel insincere, but that’s not a problem this film faced at all.
One has to address the criticisms surrounding the film, and this film has quite a lot of it. I don’t want to get into the historical accuracy of Don Shirley’s representation purely because I don’t think I have the information about him that I would need to have in order to pass judgement on it, and neither, really, do most people who think they have an opinion on this count. The fact is I didn’t know Don Shirley, so whether or not he was portrayed accurately is not something I can realistically comment on. In terms of the supposed skewing towards a white protagonist, I don’t agree with the film’s critics on this count. Firstly, the film isn’t about either of them so much as both of them. If there’s any more focus on Tony, by way of the portrayal of his family life and whatnot, it comes down to where the story literally comes from. There are a million and one ways to tell a story, the way the story is told comes down to the teller of that story. Seeing as the film is co-written by Nick Vallelonga, the son of the white protagonist of the film, it’s natural that the film stem from some amount of look into Tony’s life at home, that’s the perspective from which the story is told. The skewing probably does exist, but it’s a natural part of storytelling. I worry that a lot of the criticism on this count is heard because to criticise is fashionable; in the end the writer’s only crime was to write the story he knew to tell.
All in all, I don’t really have any complaints about this film winning Best Picture. I don’t think I personally would have chosen it, but the Academy isn’t obliged to agree with me or anyone else. They’ve recognised an undeniably well made, heartwarming, well-intentioned film that strikes all the chords it promised to hit in all the ways in promised to hit them, and for that I have a hard time understanding the outrage. If Black Panther had won we’d have been talking about the trade of quality for inclusiveness, and if Vice had won we’d be talking about poisonous politics and left-wing bias. My point is I think we might’ve been having this discussion no matter what film won, and that’s a dangerous place to be in as consumers of media. Green Book is fun, good, and well made; as far as I’m concerned that ticks all my boxes for a movie I’d recommend, labels and titles aside.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Score – 86/100 Aryamaan’s Score – 89/100