After 'Green Book': "Who Can Tell What Stories?"

The best picture winner stirred up a flurry of controversy a year ago, and now a handful of new films exploring issues of race and gender are likely to catch flak for having filmmakers who aren't aligned with the representation in the film.
François Duhamel/Netflix; Hilary B Gayle/Lionsgate; Courtesy of A24
(From left) 'Bombshell,' 'Waves,' 'Dolemite Is My Name'

A hot-button question that society — or at least Twitter — has been debating for years enveloped the Oscar race last season: Who is allowed to tell which stories?

Many were angered that Green Book, a film largely about Don Shirley, a once-famous and now deceased black concert pianist, had been made not by people who knew the black experience firsthand but rather by white screenwriters and a white director. They also were upset that it was told not through Shirley's eyes but rather through those of a white character who knew him. The response of the filmmakers — one of whom, Nick Vallelonga, was the son of Tony Lip, the white character — essentially was that nobody had stopped or could stop anyone else from making a film about the pianist but that they were, thus far, the only ones who got it done.

Octavia Spencer, the Oscar-winning actress and a producer of Green Book, who is black, told me at the time: "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."

Many agree with Spencer — in the end, Green Book garnered an A+ CinemaScore; it won three Oscars, including best picture and best original screenplay; and it grossed nearly $322 million worldwide. But many do not agree — indeed, the debate thrust into the spotlight by Green Book is continuing this Oscar season.

This year, there are no fewer than five Oscar-contending films that center on black protagonists and were directed, and in some cases also written, by people who are not black: Trey Edward Shults' Waves, an epic saga about a successful black family thrown into chaos by one mistake; Destin Daniel Cretton's Just Mercy, a moving legal drama about a young black defense attorney's efforts to free a black man from death row; George Nolfi's The Banker, the story of black real estate entrepreneurs facing race-related roadblocks in the 1950s; Craig Brewer's Dolemite Is My Name, a biopic of black comedian Rudy Ray Moore, who became famous under an alter ego; and Joe Talbot's The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a drama about a young black man's quest to reclaim the home that his family lost to gentrification.

But if one digs a little deeper, one will find that there is more to these stories. For instance, Talbot is the best friend of Jimmie Fails, the black man whose story inspired the film (in which Fails also stars), and there was never any question that the two would make the film together. Shults, meanwhile, wrote a semi-autobiographical film but wanted to work for a second time with young black actor Kelvin Harrison Jr., telling The New York Times, "Kelvin and I loved each other and wanted to do this thing together." Given circumstances like these, can one really take issue with those filmmakers telling those stories?

There are also two films this year about women combating toxic masculinity that were directed by — wait for it — men: Jay Roach's Bombshell, which dramatizes the sexual harassment perpetrated against female employees of Fox News by the late Roger Ailes; and Alex Holmes' Maiden, a documentary about the first all-female crew to compete in the Whitbread Round the World yachting race.

But consider that Roach was recruited to direct Bombshell by Charlize Theron, one of the film's producers and stars in a save after Annapurna dropped the movie. And Holmes relentlessly pursued Tracy Edwards, who had captained the all-female crew 30 years ago, after meeting her when she gave a talk to a class of schoolchildren that included his own child, at which point he learned that no one had ever properly told her story on film. One could argue that these are reasons enough for those filmmakers to have told those stories.

There is one film this year that manages to find itself in the middle of both the gender and race conversations. Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, a documentary feature about the eponymous and recently deceased Nobel-winning author, a black woman, which was directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a white man. He is best known as a portrait photographer, which is how, decades ago, he met and became close friends with Morrison, about whom a feature had never previously been made. She was a private person who never trusted anyone to tell her story until, that is, he expressed an interest in doing so.

And then there is Jojo Rabbit, a comedy about the Holocaust, which was directed by the indigenous New Zealander Taika Waititi. The film already has caused quite a bit of controversy, coming as it does when real Nazis are mounting something of a comeback around the world. Were Waititi not part-Jewish — his maternal grandfather is of Russian Jewish heritage, and he has occasionally used his mother's surname, Cohen — would he have been able to tell this story? Because he is part-Jewish, is it OK that he did?

We report, you decide. But it is important to remember, especially at a time of the year when mudslinging and smear campaigns often get going in earnest, that these situations are usually not as polarized as a wholly different kind of campaign happening in the country right now.

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.