I’m Selina, Awards Circuit’s queer Girl Friday for everything LGBTQIA+ on film and TV. In the last few weeks leading up to the Oscars, I’ll be taking a closer look at the Oscar nominees and the LGBTQIA+ representation in them: the good, the bad, and what it means for mainstream LGBTQIA+ visibility. Last week I tackled “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and this time around I’m talking about “Green Book,” a film that’s been hit with multiple controversies since its Golden Globe wins. But how did “Green Book” fare in portraying Dr. Don Shirley, an incredible classical pianist who happened to be black and queer?
“Green Book’s” Positives: Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali
“Green Book’s” magic lies in star Viggo Mortensen (“Lord of the Rings” trilogy) and Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”), two powerhouse actors that make long driving scenes actually interesting. Mortensen’s Tony “Lip” Vallelonga is a well-meaning, rough-around-the edges Italian New Yorker with a love for his wife, kids, and a good meal. Ali’s Dr. Don Shirley, a multilingual pianist of incredible talent, finds himself in need of a driver for his musical tour of the southern U.S., where a sharp uppercut and a silver tongue will be needed past the Mason-Dixon line. The pair’s chemistry is clear and was able to swing from dramatic to comedic moments with ease. For me, their performances are largely carrying this film through awards season.
Unfortunately, the rest of “Green Book,” including its plot, is same-old-same-old; it’s Oscar Bait, and it doesn’t really deviate from that label. The film also fits the mold of a White Savior film, with the well-intentioned but prejudiced Vallelonga literally running in to save Shirley from beatings, racists and cops. He also teaches Vallelonga how to eat fried chicken (?). While “Green Book” is advertised as a friendship flick, with the story resting on both Vallelonga and Shirley’s shoulders, we mostly follow Vallelonga, and Mortensen has received lead actor billing instead of splitting it with Ali, making Shirley a supporting character in a story about his own music tour. Kinda goes downhill from there.
Facts Vs. Fiction: Who Was Don Shirley?
One of the main controversies with “Green Book” was the bombshell Shadow and Act interview with Shirley’s family, where family members revealed that the younger Vallelonga never got permission from Shirley to make the film, nor did he consult the family during its development. Furthermore, “Green Book” fudges quite a bit about Shirley for the sake of a “simplistic racial harmony story,” as Shadow and Act puts it. Here are just a few of the major discrepancies:
- Shirley wasn’t estranged from his family at the time of his tour. One of the main points of the film is Shirley’s loneliness and estrangement from his brother. In real life, he had three living brothers at the time, and was in close contact with his brother Maurice, who he practically raised, until Shirley’s death in 2013. Shirley may have been lonely, but he was not without loved ones as the movie suggests.
- Shirley wasn’t estranged from the black community, nor was he embarrassed by his blackness. In real life, he was a civil rights activist who marched in Selma alongside Dr. Martin Luther King. He was also close friends with prominent black musicians like Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, and Sarah Vaughn. So, that whole “you don’t know your own people!” line Vallelonga throws out is B.S.
- Shirley and Vallelonga’s “friendship” was more employer-employee than buddy-buddy. According to Maurice and his wife Patricia, Shirley never referred to Vallelonga as a friend, and always insisted on keeping connections professional with everyone he worked with. So, the entire premise of this friendship story dies with this revelation.
- P.S. Shirley knew about the younger Vallelonga’s plans to make “Green Book,” 30-odd years ago; he flatly refused to be involved. Probably the worst sign of all about “Green Book’s” veracity.
The family’s statements throw the entire “inspired by” tagline on this film into jeopardy, revealing “Green Book” as a fictionalized narrative that focuses more on making Vallelonga a white savior than presenting Shirley as a brilliant, complicated man. This makes it hard to really believe anything you see in “Green Book,” putting up extra roadblocks to really understanding Shirley.
Does A Few Minutes of Airtime Count As LGBTQIA+ Representation?
In the 130 minute flick, you’d think there would be time between Mortensen mukbang shots for a talk about sexual orientation. As Vallelonga notes, what else is there to do but talk? According to producer Jim Burke in an interview with THR, the “Green Book” team “didn’t want to make [the film] entirely about [Shirley’s sexuality],” though he calls it a “really important part of the film.” But any references to Shirley’s queerness were shoved into just two scenes: one at a bath-house, where Shirley is discovered having sex with a man and Vallelonga rides in on his white horse, and another two minute scene that patches up any awkward feelings so the plot can move forward. That doesn’t really scream “important,” does it?
The bath-house scene, where Vallelonga yells about Shirley going somewhere without letting him know, was an opportunity missed. Shirley could’ve talked about the added stigma of being queer and black, and the difficulties of a love life when being caught means ending up beaten, possibly jailed, and probably the loss of your career. The only other scene where both men talk about what happened–in a quiet, calm hotel hallway– was another easy opportunity to dig deeper, especially for a film filled with one-on-ones. Vallelonga even brings up working in gay clubs in NYC, demonstrating an surprisingly progressive view for a man of 1960s U.S.A. But “Green Book” punts the opportunity, and Shirley apologizes for the inconvenience, the only time he does so in “Green Book.”
Even though the “Green Book” team didn’t want to make the whole film about Shirley’s sexuality, there was enough leeway in five minutes for a heart-to-heart. But the “Green Book” team omitted almost all references to Shirley’s sexuality, making it a footnote instead of any decent statement about homophobia and racism. And that, in my opinion, killed any positive rainbow impact “Green Book” could’ve have, because the “Green Book” team just didn’t want to deal with it.
“Green Book,” at its core, is not a bad film. Mortensen and Ali do some strong acting work and the film’s story arc, while a bit formulaic, has clearly affected audiences in a positive way. But the distance between “inspired by a true story” and the actual life of Dr. Don Shirley is too large to ignore, especially in light of the Shirley family’s statements about Shirley and Vallelonga’s real-life connection. As to “Green Book’s” LGBTQIA+ representation? Out of the 130 minute run time, only five minutes were devoted to Shirley’s sexuality, and those five minutes missed multiple opportunities for any decent message. Because of this, I don’t believe this film can claim good LGBTQIA+ representation, even though one of its main characters was queer.