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Green Book is a Best Picture frontrunner. Should it be?

Our roundtable discusses the Oscar chances for Peter Farrelly’s road trip buddy comedy about racism, set in the 1960s.

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book.
Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book.
Universal Pictures

Each year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences nominates between five and 10 movies to compete for the Oscars’ Best Picture trophy — its most prestigious award, and the one given out at the very end of the ceremony. There’s no strict definition for what makes a “best” picture; it’s easiest to think about it as an honor given to the film that Hollywood thinks best represents the year in movies.

So whichever film wins Best Picture essentially represents the American movie industry’s view of its role in driving culture, as well as its capabilities and aspirations, at a specific point in time.

Every year’s nominee slate, then, is a rough approximation of the options from which the industry will choose as it attempts to characterize its past 12 months. And one thing that’s definitely true about the eight Best Picture nominees from 2018 is that they exhibit a lot of variety.

There’s a superhero film, two political satires (one set in an 18th-century royal court and one set in the White House), a movie about infiltrating the KKK, a classic Hollywood remake, a classic Hollywood feel-good buddy comedy, a rocker biopic, and a sweeping domestic drama. And thinking about what the Academy voters — as well as audiences and critics — found enticing about them can help us better understand both the state of Hollywood and, broadly speaking, what we were looking for at the movies this year.

In the runup to the Oscars on February 24, Vox’s staff is looking at each of the eight Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

Here, we talk about Green Book, a film based on the recollections of Tony Vallelonga (a.k.a. Tony Lip), the father of one of the film’s screenwriters, about a road trip he took with the acclaimed pianist Dr. Don Shirley through the deep South during a time when segregation was still widely accepted throughout the country. Joining the conversation are Vox critics Todd VanDerWerff and Alissa Wilkinson and race and identities reporter P.R. Lockhart.

Why is Green Book so appealing — and why is it still worth critiquing?

Alissa Wilkinson: Green Book is a buddy comedy about an unlikely friendship and overcoming racism. It’s been very popular with some critics and roundly critiqued by others (including me). It’s won a battery of awards, including the Golden Globes for Best Musical or Comedy and Best Screenplay, and its stars Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, both of whom are Oscar-nominated for their Green Book performances, have been on the campaign trail as well. It’s certainly one of the more controversial Best Picture nominees, not least because of various statements from its director, screenwriter, and stars.

I always feel the need to qualify my critique of Green Book by saying that the movie is pretty entertaining. I’ve seen it twice, and both times, the audience was laughing uproariously (though I was sliding down in my chair). It’s got broadly genial performances (particularly by Viggo Mortensen), ace comic timing, some good jokes, and a lot of music, mixed in with a heartwarming (if paint-by-numbers) story of two men becoming friends.

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book.
Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book.
Universal Pictures

Yet there’s a lot to criticize, particularly in the film’s writing, which seems to pivot around all the wrong things, focusing on the comedy and the experiences of its white protagonist while shortchanging its most dynamic character, Don Shirley. (That Ali is nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category for playing Shirley, instead of as a Lead Actor, is telling.)

And for a movie called Green Book, it sure goes light on anything about the actual Green Books, the guides published in the mid-20th century that pointed black travelers toward establishments where they would be welcomed throughout the continental US, where functional segregation was still widely accepted and practiced. And in some cases, it grossly misrepresents the history of segregation in the US — a pretty unforgivable misstep in a movie that purports to be about racism.

I’d like to know, first of all, what you thought of the movie when you saw it, and how your thoughts about it developed afterward. How much did you know about the actual history of the Green Book going in? And why do you think the movie has been so appealing to Oscar and other awards voters thus far?

Todd VanDerWerff: Green Book is mostly a movie about racism by implication. It sets up in the early going that both Tony Lip (Mortensen) and the country he lives in are broadly racist against black people, and then it doesn’t really walk through the steps that would normally depict the journey toward reconciliation at the heart of these sorts of stories.

With that said, it’s important to acknowledge that these sorts of stories are rarely well-handled, because they tend to situate the perspectives of white people front and center, rather than the lives of people actually affected by racism. (Think of The Help or The Blind Side.) They’re movies that suggest that all you need to do to combat racism is make sure people are nicer to each other, which is a comforting fantasy but little more.

And comforting fantasies can make for good movies! But Green Book doesn’t even do the work of being part of its genre. We see in the first act that Tony puts a glass used by some black workmen who visit his house in the trash. “O-ho!” we think. “He’s going to learn about how wrong his prejudices are!” Similarly, we get a quick insert shot of a green book, and we’re told that it will help find places where Shirley can stay in the segregated South, which sets up an arc where Tony confronts his own covert racism by learning about the overt racism of the Jim Crow-era South. There are plenty of basic sociopolitical problems with this setup, but, like, it’s at least an efficient first act of a movie.

And then Green Book just ... doesn’t put in the work of filling in the details of that story. Tony mostly just realizes that Dr. Shirley is a fellow human being, and the two get a greatest hits tour of Southern racism that’s been handled much better in several episodes of Quantum Leap. After I first saw the movie, I thought its muted treatment of one man confronting his own prejudice didn’t particularly work, but it still made me appreciate what I thought was an attempt to not state overtly what was going on.

But no. The awards circuit run for the film has revealed that director Peter Farrelly has, in essence, fully bought into the movie’s central notion, which is that racism can be solved if we just get to know each other better. Green Book isn’t a movie about what it’s about. It’s a movie that suggests it’s about weighty topics, but it skirts away from those topics most of the time. It’s entertaining enough, but it’s also deeply weird and evasive. I genuinely can’t believe it’s so beloved in some circles, even when accounting for how much white people (guilty as charged!) enjoy entertainment that absolves them of responsibility. It’s just kind of hammy and ramshackle!

The National Board Of Review Annual Awards Gala - Inside
Director, writer, and producer Peter Farrelly accepts the Best Film award for Green Book during the National Board of Review Annual Awards Gala in January 2019.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for National Board of Review

P.R. Lockhart: I only recently saw Green Book, and it’s … fine? It isn’t a terrible film, but it also feels weirdly dated, like it actually should have come out in the 1990s but got held up for various reasons.

I think some of my problem with the film has to do with what Todd mentioned. I feel like a chunk of footage showing how Tony changed his attitude about Don Shirley is just missing.

Now, I think the movie wants me to believe that scenes where Tony teaches Shirley about Aretha Franklin and Little Richard before introducing our refined musician to Kentucky Fried Chicken are where this development happens. But I cringed through all of those scenes. And having moments where Tony straight-up says he’s more black than an actual black guy were just grating.

Going in, I already knew that the screenplay’s co-writer Nick Vallelonga (the real-life Tony’s son) mostly relied on the stories his father shared about the trip as the basis for the film. And the best and worst thing I can say about Green Book is that it comes off like a series of stories a father would tell his child before bedtime. Tony is always there when he’s needed. He helps Shirley stand up to racism, encourages the man to connect with black culture, and even punches racists as the situation requires. And at the end of the movie, Shirley enjoys Christmas with Tony’s casually racist family, one of whom used a slur to refer to Shirley just minutes before. It’s all just too neat.

What’s annoying is that the movie has to make Shirley — who’s arguably its most interesting character — very inconsistent, and at times outright illogical, for specific plot points to happen. According to the white musicians in the Don Shirley trio, Shirley knows the dangers of performing in the South, but he wants to do it to make a bigger point about what he and other black musicians are capable of. Okay, makes sense!

But then he ends up in several situations where he’s shocked that people are being racist to him, and … I’m confused that he’s confused? And don’t get me started on the YMCA scene, where Tony has to rescue Shirley after the police discover him having sex with a man in the locker room. It opens up a new side of Shirley’s character, and then no one talks about it ever again.

‘Green Book’ New York Premiere
Mahershala Ali, Peter Farrelly, and Viggo Mortensen at the New York premiere of Green Book.
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

I left the theater wanting 1) a movie told from Shirley’s perspective, and 2) a movie that actually shows how black people used Green Books to travel through the US in the 1960s. These books were a survival tool, and the film barely incorporates them.

I know that I’m not Green Book’s intended audience. The film is just so clearly tailor-made to appeal to older people. It reminds me of the movies my grandmother would take me to see after church when I was a kid. It’s a feel-good example of what people are capable of when they set aside their differences (which ignores that racism was deliberately created and isn’t the result of lacking black friends, but that’s another discussion).

Still, that doesn’t make it okay that Green Book keeps getting sold as this bigger, nuanced story on racism. “It takes courage to change people’s hearts,” one of the film’s early trailers proclaims. “If they can find common ground, we all can,” Peter Farrelly said of the film’s characters in his Golden Globes acceptance speech, declaring, “All we have to do is talk and to not judge people by their differences, but to look for what we have in common.”

But the movie is actually the safest, easiest way to talk about this issue.

Should Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali win Oscars for their performances?

Alissa: What you say there about the film being sold as a nuanced story on racism is so true. I knew that’s how it was getting sold, but I was still a little startled by Farrelly’s speech at the Golden Globes, which aggressively suggested that the movie’s message is that everything would be better if we just sat down and talked to each other.

But, like, it doesn’t happen that way. In fact, the very existence of the Green Book itself refutes that premise. That’s not to question specific friendships or suggest personal relationships aren’t valid. But the lack of self-awareness of the film’s own writing in that respect is a little amazing.

I have another question, which is this: both Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali have been nominated for acting awards: Mortensen for Lead Actor, and Ali for Supporting Actor. Should they win?

Todd: I’m rather grateful that Mortensen’s genuinely awful performance seems to have lost any traction it might once have had — granted, in favor of similarly baffling performances from Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody and Christian Bale in Vice. (I liked both Malek and Bale, but I really don’t think they will be anywhere near my ballot this year.)

Mortensen, at times, seems to be playing the guy who shouts, “Oh!” in cutaway shots in any given episode of The Sopranos, and if I can explain his success this year, I guess it all boils down to the way he seems to be playing the father of every single older Oscar voter — a little bit racist, a little bit goofy, fond of eating entire pizzas at once.

Really, I think, this more broadly explains most of Green Book’s appeal, as P.R. noted. You really do feel the affection that Vallelonga felt for his dad emanating from this movie, which carries it through some of its rougher patches while also creating entirely different problems. Vallelonga and company seem unwilling to engage with Tony as anything other than a broad caricature of an Italian dad, which ends up dragging down Mortensen’s performance.

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book.
Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book.
Universal Pictures

Ali seems like he’s going to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and honestly, that’s fine by me. He wouldn’t be my pick, but he’s always good, and he makes you watch this movie and imagine the version of it that is actually about him, which is perhaps an argument for why he should also be in the Lead Actor category instead, but never mind. Don Shirley is a really flat character on the page, if you think about it, but Ali wrings every bit of emotion and nuance out of him.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why Green Book has resonated for so many people, despite feeling a little like a cover version of an already weak-tea version of the exact same story, and I keep coming back to the way it’s so darn nice that anybody trying to poke around in why it doesn’t work entirely feels like they’re being overly harsh or reactionary to what is ultimately kind of an agreeable comedy. Dissecting its flaws becomes an attempt to dissect the flaws of mostly well-meaning white people, and we all know how well that goes.

P.R.: I’ll confess now that I haven’t seen all the performances that are nominated this year, so I cannot really answer whether I think Green Book’s performances were better than others. But I can answer whether I think the performances deserve awards, and for me, that is a bit of a mixed bag.

I’ll start with Mortensen. He certainly chews up as much scenery as he can, and he’s portraying someone who actually existed, so he’s somewhat limited to how Tony Vallelonga actually acted. Even so, I think there were parts of Green Book where his Tony hurt the film rather than helped it (the film’s desire to make it clear that Tony’s racist, but, you know, not bad racist is also a major factor here).

Being honest, I found myself so turned off from what the film has Tony say and do at times that I really couldn’t sit and connect with the character. It isn’t that Mortensen is unlikable as Tony (I mean, he is, but that shouldn’t affect an acting award); it’s that he’s so much at all times, and it dampens some of the film’s more powerful moments.

As for Ali, it is pretty clear that he has the awards momentum on his side right now, and like Todd, I wouldn’t mind if he won. I think he did a good job with limited material, and in a lot of moments, my frustrations with how illogical the film needs Shirley to be for the sake of the plot were eased by Ali’s performance.

In fact, that might be my biggest takeaway from the acting in Green Book: Both Mortensen and Ali give powerful performances, but Tony reminds you of the film’s flaws, while Shirley is able to paper over those flaws a lot of the time.

I think another testament to Ali’s performance is that I’m incredibly frustrated that we didn’t see more of Don Shirley in this film. I think Green Book could have been better if it went beyond Tony and really tried to establish Shirley as a co-lead. Actually, Shirley just needs to have his own film. And I hope someone makes that happen in the future.

What’s like Green Book, but better?

Alissa: I’m not partial to Mortensen’s performance myself, for all the reasons you both state, but I will say that the scene where he folds an entire pizza in half and bites into it will never leave me when I eat a New York-style pizza, ever, ever again.

The good news is that anyone who wants to know more about the actual Green Books and how they affected Americans’ lives have some excellent options. I had a great conversation with staff at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center prior to the film’s release; they’re the ones who have collected and digitized the Green Books, stretching across decades, so that you can see them for yourself on the web. The Smithsonian also has a great article about the books. A TV show about the Green Books got derailed by this film but will hopefully get back on track, and a documentary called Green Book: Guide to Freedom from the Smithsonian Channel is set to air the day after the Oscars, February 25.

So I have one more quick question — if you could recommend a movie to people who love Green Book, what would yours be?

P.R.: This is tough, it’s hard to think of a popular movie about racism and history that would appeal to people who embrace Green Book’s overly simplistic message yet isn’t problematic in how it frames racism.

I’d encourage people to check out that Green Book: Guide to Freedom documentary on the Smithsonian Channel. It offers a different look at the history behind the Green Book and how it helped build community among black people traveling in the South.

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures
Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures.
Hopper Stone / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

I’d also suggest Hidden Figures as a slightly better film that grapples with the same sorts of issues as Green Book. Now, I’ll be honest and say that Hidden Figures is also too neat at times, and it has its own problems due to introducing an unnecessary white character who calls out everyone else for being racist, but the movie at least does a better job centering black women in their own story.

Todd: Driving Miss Daisy is a film replete with issues, and it’s one that also sells the “all we have to do is be nicer to each other” message of Green Book. But if you just want a nice movie about a white person and a black person learning to be friends, it at least does the work of showing how they overcome Miss Daisy’s racist prejudices to get back to amity.

But that’s really a terrible recommendation. Don’t watch Driving Miss Daisy! I honestly might recommend Ava DuVernay’s Selma, a movie that centers the experiences of black characters but has the historical sweep that Green Book attempts to attain, as well as much more idiosyncratic filmmaking choices. And I think it’s smarter about the ways that white people can be forced to see how unjust the system truly is to people who aren’t white, all without ever being so in your face or iconoclastic that it might turn off viewers who just want a nice night at the movies.

Finally: Consider Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls, a documentary that does a much better job of underlining the racism of this era in the South than Green Book ever attempts. Yeah, it’s a little more confrontational than my other suggestions, but being grounded in truth and all, it earns the right. (A documentary on similar themes but in a more anodyne style: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon’s The Central Park Five, about an egregious miscarriage of justice that underscores the racist tensions always burbling away in the US.)

Alissa: I’d recommend all of the above, and add the 2018 film The Hate U Give, based on Angie Thomas’s mega-best-selling YA novel of the same name. It’s a sensitive adaptation of a story about a teenager named Starr (played by Amandla Stenberg) who is learning to live between the worlds of her mostly white prep school and the neighborhood where she and her family live. She becomes the center of a national news story after one of her childhood friends is shot by a cop. It’s a difficult and urgent story.

A scene from The Hate U Give
A scene from The Hate U Give.
Courtesy of TIFF

But as a film, it’s also completely watchable, with terrific performances, a great family dynamic, and lots of moments of levity to balance out the seriousness of the material. And Starr’s white boyfriend Chris (played by Riverdale’s K.J. Apa, a.k.a. Archie Andrews), while a secondary character, is a careful and nuanced portrait of a white kid trying to navigate the world of the girl he loves and learning that what he’s always assumed about that world isn’t necessarily objective or true. And the film ends with stirring moments and heartwarming inspiration, which I think is what a lot of people like about Green Book, while also being rooted in reality.

I personally won’t be surprised if Green Book wins Best Picture. After the past few years of surprisingly outside-the-box picks like Spotlight, Moonlight, and The Shape of Water, it almost feels like the scale is due for an overcorrection. The best I can hope for is that if it does win, people will be motivated to seek out the real, more accurate story of the Green Book, one that shows how pervasive the problem of segregation was, and learn the stories of people who had to navigate them. Because we really can’t afford to let Hollywood erase history and replace it with something a little more tailored to our modern sensibilities.

Check out what our roundtable participants had to say about all eight Best Picture nominees:

Black Panther | BlacKkKlansman | Bohemian Rhapsody | The Favourite | Green Book | Roma | A Star Is Born | Vice

Watch: the guidebook that helped black Americans during segregation

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