How 'Green Book' Became One of Awards Season's Most Contentiously Debated Films

Peter Farrelly's film scored three Golden Globes and has become a populist favorite for Oscars, but the passionate cultural debate about the racial dramedy will only grow with its awards attention.
Illustration by: Yuta Onoda

When Peter Farrelly's Green Book — which tells the story of Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a bigoted Italian-American who was hired as a driver and bodyguard by pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Alifor a tour through the civil rights-era South — premiered at September's Toronto International Film Festival, it was greeted by a tumultuous standing ovation and went on to win the festival's audience award over frontrunner A Star Is Born. A feel-good movie that ends on a note of mutual respect and the promise of racial harmony, the $23 million Universal release, which registered a rare A+ CinemaScore and has earned $36.3 million at the box office since its Nov. 16 bow, appeared set for a winning awards trajectory. And indeed it has collected plenty of accolades — it was feted by the AFI on Jan. 4 as one of 2018's top 10 films, picked up three trophies at the Golden Globes on Jan. 6 (including best musical or comedy, screenplay and supporting actor for Ali), today landed a DGA nomination for Farrelly and tonight will collect the best film and actor prizes at the National Board of Review Awards — but it also has become one of the season's most contentiously debated movies.

Shirley's relatives have raised a number of objections. (Both Shirley and Lip died in 2013.) Yvonne Shirley, his great-niece, tells THR, "For my family, this is not nor has it ever been a debate. It's just about the truth. We know the truth of our loved one." She adds of the filmmakers, "They decided to make Don Shirley estranged from his black family, though that was not true. They decided to make him absurdly disconnected from black community and culture, though that was not true. They decided to depict him as having spent his formative years in Europe, though he spent them in the Deep South where he was born and raised. They decided to create a story of a white man's redemption and self-realization using an extraordinary black life and a history of black oppression in this country as their backdrop. Many viewers are simply tired of that devaluing narrative."

Shirley's nephew Edwin Shirley III told the website Shadow and Act that the movie's suggestions that the musician was estranged from his family are "very hurtful" and "100 percent wrong," and that it's "hard to believe" Shirley ever OK'd the film: "I remember very, very clearly, going back 30 years, my uncle had been approached by Nick Vallelonga, the son of Tony Vallelonga, about a movie on his life, and Uncle Donald told me about it. He flatly refused." Shirley's last surviving brother, Maurice Shirley, labeled the film "a symphony of lies," emphasizing, "At that point he had three living brothers with whom he was always in contact." Patricia Shirley, Maurice's wife, further insisted that Shirley and Lip were never friends: "It was an employer-employee relationship."

But Farrelly shared with THR an email he sent to a disgruntled Shirley relative in October, a portion of which reads: "At no time in the film do we state that Dr. Shirley was never close to his family; we just show that during that two-month period in his life, they weren't particularly close, which makes sense. In reality, this tour lasted over a year, and they were on the road the entire time, so how could he be close to anyone during this period? We also never implied that Dr. Shirley and his family would always be this way; in fact, the end of the movie would lead one to believe that he would reach back out to his family once the trip was over." As for the notion that Lip and Shirley weren’t actually friends, Farrelly points to Josef Astor’s 2010 doc Lost Bohemia, in which Shirley expounds on their relationship.

Nick Vallelonga, Lip's son who wrote the screenplay with Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie, adds: "It hurts me that the [Shirley] family is hurt. I loved the guy, and my father loved him." As part of his research for writing a script about Lip and Shirley's travels, Vallelonga says he interviewed his father in-person and Shirley via a series of phone conversations in the '80s — after agreeing to the musician's stipulations that the script be limited in scope to his relationship with Lip; that Vallelonga not interview others, since Shirley and Lip were the only two on the trip; and that any film not be released during Shirley's lifetime.

"One of the charges is I didn't do any due-diligence and talk to the family," Vallelonga acknowledges. "Well, what better due-diligence could I have done than speak to the man himself?" The writer elaborates, "He would say, 'What has your father told you?' And I would tell him. And he would corroborate it or add to it or take away from it." He notes, "They met with Martin Luther King a couple of times [on their travels]. Do I not want a Martin Luther King scene: Martin Luther King meets Tony from the Bronx? Do I not want that in the movie? But he [Shirley] didn't want that. He didn't want anything about his life other than what they did together, and then some of that — even what they did together — he didn't want.”

"My hope," Yvonne Shirley tells THR, "is that at some point the writers and producers will abandon their defensive stance and reflect on why they made the choices they made. Why not apply the same care and curiosity to their research about Don Shirley as they did to Tony Lip?"

The larger cultural debate in which Green Book has become embroiled is even thornier. Some feel the film represents an outdated way of grappling with race and is therefore unworthy of celebration in a year that has also yielded Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk, Steve McQueen's Widows, Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You, George Tillman Jr.'s The Hate U Give and Carlos Lopez Estrada's Blindspotting.

The Grapevine’s Monique Judge has dismissed Green Book as yet another "white savior movie," while IndieWire's Tambay Obenson believes Shirley’s character exemplifies the "Magical Negro" archetype, which is "rooted in a white screenwriter's ignorance of any genuine African-American experience" and "exists almost entirely to help transform his white companion on a quest toward salvation." Slashfilm's Candice Frederick considers it the latest Hollywood film that "whitewash[es] black experiences." And The Ringer's Jourdain Searles opines, "Green Book fails as a comedy and racial commentary, but at least Farrelly was able to make racists comfortable for Christmas."

Others feel that a film written and directed solely by white people has no business even referencing something as central to the African-American experience as The Negro Motorist Green Book, the guide to restaurants and hotels that served blacks during the Jim Crow era. On Dec. 28, Roger Ross Williams, a member of the Academy’s board of governors and the first black director to win an Oscar (for the 2010 doc short Music for Prudence), posted on Facebook, "The Green Book is a black story and for a white man to steal that legacy and name for a film that has little or nothing to do with The Green Book is unacceptable. We have always had our stories and our history stolen from us and told through the lens of whiteness and this film is Hollywood’s latest example.” He added, “It’s shocking this shit is still going on, much less being rewarded for it."

But many in Hollywood, generally, and the Academy, specifically, love Green Book — and not just the older white men who still account for a large share of both communities (although Jeff Bridges, Peter Fonda, William Friedkin and Ron Howard have all tweeted endorsements). Black supporters of the film range from Henry Louis Gates to John Singleton and Willie Brown to Justin Simien. Martin Luther King III invited it to screen Jan.  21 at the 90th birthday celebration of his father at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Quincy Jones, who knew Shirley, hosted a reception for the film at which he publicly thanked Farrelly "for telling this story of our country's not-so-distant history and capturing on film the ties that can bind us when we spend time listening, talking and living with one another." And in an email to The Grapevine, Harry Belafonte, another Shirley friend, testified, "This movie is accurate, it is true and it's a wonderful movie that everyone should see. The few people who appear to be objecting to the film’s depiction of the time and the man are dead wrong, and if the basis of their resentment stems from it having been written and/or directed by someone who isn't African-American, I disagree with them even more. There are many perspectives from which to tell the same story and all can be true."

Farrelly tells THR he understands why some are skeptical. "Black people have gotten their fucking asses kicked in this country for centuries, and in the way that their stories are told, and they see a guy like me come along and they don’t know what's in my heart." But he feels it's "lazy" to call it a "white savior movie." "They saved each other," he says. "Yes, of course, Tony's job was to save Dr. Shirley — that was what he was paid to do — but it was Dr. Shirley who saved Tony the most. Tony's soul was saved." He adds, "This is told from Tony Lip's side mainly because it's his son who collected the information." Nothing is stopping anyone else from making a film told mainly from Shirley’s perspective — and, Farrelly reveals, Octavia Spencer, one of the film's executive producers, approached the family about producing a Shirley documentary.

Addressing the "white savior" allegations, Vallelonga says, "I never thought that he [Lip] was 'saving' anything — the only savior I know is Jesus. I think it's kind of insulting to Mahershala Ali because he's on top of that character, how he's portrayed and how he comes across, and he would not have let anything go by." He continues, "I could have just changed [Shirley's] name, but I said, 'No. I want people to buy his music, I want people to know about him.' I did this with love." And, he adds, "The family was all invited to the premieres, and went. Then I finally met a couple of them, who told me they loved it."

Spencer tells THR, "The whole 'white savior' thing was tossed around in regard to other movies that I have been a part of from that era [The Help and Hidden Figures], so when I read this script and it was about a black man who was from a place of prominence and had agency and actually existed, I wanted to be a part of telling his story. He had agency — he hired an Italian-American bouncer to drive him through the Deep South. None of the characters that I played from that time period had agency." She adds, "When does one get to tell their story? This is actually Nick's family's story. It's bound to someone else's story, but if this white man can’t tell his own story, then I don’t know where we’re headed. Should Asian people only tell Asian stories? Should African-Americans only tell African-American stories? I don't think we should ever get in the business of saying who should be telling certain stories. It's crazy to me."

As Lee often reminds people, the Academy gave "Driving Miss Mothafuckin' Daisy" — which tells a story not dissimilar to Green Book's, and was also directed by a white man, Bruce Beresford — the best picture Oscar the same year it didn't even nominate his own Do the Right Thing for it. A quarter-century later, there were two consecutive seasons in which none of the 20 acting Oscar nominees were people of color, spawning the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite — but they were sandwiched by best picture Oscar wins for McQueen's 12 Years a Slave and Jenkins' Moonlight. In recent years, the Academy has made a concerted push for inclusion, bringing in thousands of new voters (30 percent of the membership joined in the last three years), many people of color. So it remains to be seen how "the new Academy" will respond to a film like Green Book. In the meantime, even Shirley's relatives who take issue with the film are pulling for Ali, who called them in November to apologize for not reaching out sooner, saying he was unaware that close relatives of Shirley were still living. Yvonne Shirley, contacted in the aftermath of the Golden Globes, tells THR, "We're glad he won."

A version of this story also appears in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.