Inevitably, when a movie retells historical events, there will be those who challenge the filmmaker’s presentation of the narrative. This is especially the case when the film deals with a sensitive topic like race and is in the Oscar Race. Such is the case this year with Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book.” It is the latest in a long line of movies that face “backlash” for telling a story in a way that some do not like. And while we can be sympathetic to the general outline of the arguments this time, I cannot help but disagree for very specific reasons.
The general critique goes something like this:
“Green Book’s“ presentation of the relationship between Tony Vallelonga and Dr. Don Shirley is told largely from Vallelonga’s perspective as a White man. His racism receives a light treatment and he plays the hero on several occasions. Dr. Shirley, on the other hand, is largely relegated to a complementary role in what could have just as easily been his own story. The Negro Motorist Green Book, which is the basis of the title, also gets short shrift as the story focuses on the interpersonal dynamics between the two characters rather than accurately portraying what it was like to use it.
A more fulsome account of these arguments can be found in Shadow and Act’s review of the movie.
It Treats Vallelonga As a White Savior
Is it fair to say that the movie treats Vallelonga as a White savior? Yes. He gets the valiant and more fulsome narrative arc. The movie begins and ends in his world and Dr. Shirley and the events of the movie are more or less just passing through it.
That said, the reason this is so is that Vallelonga’s son helped write and produce the movie. Producers had a choice of which man’s perspective to tell the story through and they chose Vallelonga. This is in part because of how much of a first-hand account he left behind. Based on the team involved, it would seem they made the right choice.
Part of the reason “Green Book“ is so superficially satisfying is that it has a certain authenticity. If the White writers and producers tried to tell a story they were less comfortable with, capturing Dr. Shirley’s experiences more fully, it is possible the movie loses its most satisfying charms. Yes, this is an argument in favor of more diversity in your writers’ room when telling a story like this, but it is not a reason that this particular version of this particular story should not exist.
It Ignores The Green Book
Is there a version of this story, or other stories throughout history, that could focus on what it was like to use The Negro Motorist Green Book? Yes, there is certainly more than enough there to fill a movie in and of itself, but I’m not sure that story is obviously more compelling than this one. The unique circumstances and dynamic friendship give the movie a chance to explore things we don’t often see in movies. Namely, a reversal of the power dynamics often found in interracial stories. This story is deeply personal in a way historical dramas usually are not. 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.
The fairest artistic critique of “Green Book“ is that there are certain scenes that can be uncomfortable to watch from the perspective we are given and thus the overall impact of the film is lessened. That sort of measured critique rings much truer than one that says this movie should just not exist. But even that measured critique ignores Hollywood’s real shortcoming. It is not that Hollywood is doing stories like this wrong. It is that it should be just as easy to offer a different perspective.
The Shirley Family Disputes
On a human level, this critique feels fair. It is the single most complicating factor. What is a legacy if it does not belong to the family? How can a story offer details disputed by the people with firsthand knowledge?
The two principal changes that seem most upsetting to his family are that Dr. Shirley is presented as having a strained relationship with his family and he is presented as having a lack of connection to the Black community. There are meaningful reasons why each of these are understandably upsetting – especially in the context of a film that seeks to achieve some semblance of racial harmony through the relationship between these two men. As recently as this year’s Golden Globes, Peter Farrelly, the film’s director, defended the movie on the grounds that America needs more of this kind of relationship, which struck many as missing the point. There is a compelling argument that Dr. Shirley’s family should not only have been consulted but also brought into the production. That is certainly a fair take.
But it is also on a human level that the film enjoys its greatest triumphs. Dr. Shirley comes across with grace, agency, and dignity in a way few Black subjects ever are. And that treatment never feels forced. Instead, we see a picture of a complex man who serves as a foil for the outsized racism he faces. Potentially fictionalized details should do very little to impact how general audiences feel about the movie. There is no way, for instance, for general audiences to determine what Dr. Shirley might have told Tony Lip Vallelonga in confidence, and thus what Tony Lip retold to his son. Such matters just can’t be fairly adjudicated in the court of public opinion, so it is probably for the best if we at least try to take the film at face value.
The 2014 political drama “Selma” faced a very similar backlash. There, some objected to the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as someone who opposed the civil rights movement. But Ava DuVernay taking that sort of creative license was unlikely to do any lasting harm to LBJ’s legacy. Likewise, Dr. Shirley’s legacy is unscathed here. What people know about him now is that he was a caring soul who just might have had a positive relationship with Tony Lip whereby both men learned a little more about themselves.
In the end, what those who are critical of “Green Book” should want is not for this movie not to exist. They should want several versions of it to exist. The world doesn’t need fewer movies like “Mississippi Burning”; it needs more movies like “Selma.” They should want it to be just as easy for Dr. Shirley’s family to get screenwriting and production credits to tell their own version of the story. That is where we have a long road ahead.