Why has the movie Green Book proved controversial?

The film has been criticised by family of its lead character, piano virtuoso Don Shirley

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Green Book has become a major talking point during the 2019 awards season.

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The road trip comedy from director Peter Farrelly has emerged as a front-runner for the Best Picture award at the Academy Awards, following wins at the Golden Globes and the Producer’s Guild Awards.

It depicts the relationship between real-life classical music virtuoso Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his Italian-American driver Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), as they undertake a two-month long concert tour through the American south in the early 1960s.

However, a groundswell of controversy has come rumbling to the surface in recent weeks in the build-up to the Oscars ceremony.

The family of the late Dr Shirley has dispute the veracity of the story, and challenged the creative team for not contacting them during the making of the film.

What has the family of Dr Shirley said about Green Book?

In an interview with Shadow and Act, Dr Shirley’s nephew Edwin, brother Maurice and sister-in-law Patricia expressed a variety of issues with the film.

First and foremost, they said they were “furious” that the film depicted the musician as a loner, who had lost touch with his only brother (in reality, Shirley had three).

“That was very hurtful,” Edwin said. “That’s just 100 per cent wrong.”

Maurice continued: “At that point [in 1962], he had three living brothers with whom he was always in contact. One of the things Donald used to remind me in his later years was he literally raised me…There wasn’t a month where I didn’t have a phone call conversation with Donald.”

On top of that, they argued that the story is not in fact “inspired by a true friendship”, as the tagline attests. They claim that the two did not have a relationship outside of the working environment – and that Shirley eventually fired Vallalonga. The coda at the end of the film suggests that the two remained friends until they both passed away in 2013.

“It was an employer-employee relationship,” Patricia said.

Maurice added: “You asked what kind of relationship he had with Tony? He fired Tony! Which is consistent with the many firings he did with all of his chauffeurs over time… Tony would not open the door, he would not take any bags, he would take his cap off when Donald got out of the car, and several times Donald would find him with the cap off, and confronted him. When you hear that Tony had been with him for 18 months, I can assure you, no chauffeur lasted with my brother for 18 months. Anybody who knew my brother’s temper and had any experience with any of his other chauffeurs — the maximum was the one from right here in Milwaukee from the Urban League that lasted at least two months.”

The family claim that they were not consulted on the making of the film, although in the interview above they claim that actor Mahershala Ali called Patricia, Maurice and Edwin after they first raised their concerns about the film.

“What he said was, ‘If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry,” Edwin said. “‘I did the best I could with the material I had. I was not aware that there were close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character.’”

How have the filmmakers responded?

Farrelly and his team have stood by the film, but have also expressed regret at having not spoken to the family beforehand. They reportedly reached out to a woman called Edwina Shirley, allegedly Don’s half sister, but never heard back.

Director Peter Farrelly has cited footage from Carnegie Hall documentary Lost Bohemia in which Don Shirley back up elements of their depiction, one of which features the following quote from the musician: “I trusted [Vallelonga] implicitly. See, Tony got to be, not only was he my driver, we never had an employer-employee relationship. We didn’t have time for that. My life was in this man’s hands. Do you understand me? So we got to be friendly with one another. I taught him things because he couldn’t talk, he was one of those Lower East Side Italians who had jowls like a bulldog.”

Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son and a co-writer on the film) has also attested that Dr Shirley had granted him permission to tell the story of the concert road trip, on condition that the film not be made during his lifetime.

Farrelly has added that while it “pains” him to see the film come under such scrutiny, he is glad that people are having these conversations about race as a result of his work.

“The worst accusation I got was that I was a white guy taking advantage of a black man, and making money off of it,” Farrelly told Vanity Fair. “I didn’t do this for money. I don’t care if I make a dime… I’m doing it to make a difference. I believe in this movie. I think it can change people’s hearts and minds, incrementally. I’m not saying it’s going to change the world. But it can make a change in the right direction at a time when we need it. And that’s the god’s honest truth why I did it. That’s why it pains me to get criticised.”

What does the title Green Book refer to?

Published between 1937 and 1966, the ‘Negro Motorist Green Book’ by Victor Hugo Green was a travel guide to the United States. What set it apart was that it listed businesses, hotels and restaurants that would serve and welcome African American travellers. The guide was indispensable in the Jim Crow-era, segregated south.

However, one of the criticisms of the film Green Book is that, apart from the title, the film makes no mention of the guide.

“It takes the name of an important artefact of history, one whose very existence was a result of prejudice and entrenched white supremacy, and makes it the basis for a broad comedy,” a review in Vox writes.

However, other critics have said that to focus on a personal story rather than the artefact itself in the end makes for a more affecting film.

“This story is deeply personal in a way historical dramas usually are not,” an article in Awards Circuit declares. “It is easy to imagine a movie that felt much more like a series of Wikipedia entries and was thus a much weaker viewing experience.”

Why have writer Nick Vallelonga’s tweets been controversial?

After the film picked up the award for Best Picture Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes in January, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz drew attention to a tweet Nick Vallelonga posted in 2015, in which he supported then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s claims that he had seen Muslim-Americans celebrating the fall of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

“@RealDonaldTrump 100% correct,” he wrote. “Muslims in Jersey City cheering when towers went down. I saw it, as you did, possibly on local CBS news.”

Horowitz drew attention to the fact that the film’s co-lead, Ali, is Muslim, and called the tweet “disgusting”.

Vallelonga released an apology, addressing Ali and “all members of the Muslim faith”.

“I want to apologise,” he wrote. “I spent my life trying to bring this story of overcoming differences and finding common ground to the screen, and I am incredibly sorry to everyone associated with Green Book. I especially deeply apologise to the brilliant and kind Mahershala Ali, and all members of the Muslim faith, for the hurt I have caused.”

He has since deleted his Twitter account.

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Green Book is released in UK cinemas on 30th January 2019