Get your story straight! 5 things ‘Green Book’ got wrong despite Oscar win

The Peter Farrelly-directed feel good film that paired Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen may have taken top honors at the Academy Awards, but that doesn't mean it was accurate

Green Book
Peter Farrelly poses with the Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay award for 'Green Book' backstage during the 91st Annual Academy Awards. (Photo by Matt Sayles - Handout/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images)

Many were dejected and annoyed Sunday evening when Green Book won the Academy Award for best picture, most notably first-time Oscar winner Spike Lee, who reportedly expressed disgust with his film BlacKkKlansman losing, then tried to leave the Dolby Theatre after the award was announced.

Although the film, which has been criticized as “white savior” narrative, has been overshadowed by a series of controversies over the last few months, some viewers sincerely had no idea why this year’s Best Picture victor incited such a collective groan of dismay from Black movie buffs.

So for those of you who don’t get why we’re applauding Mahershala Ali, while giving the rest of his Green Book crew the side-eye, below is a list of five things the whole undertaking got wrong.

READ MORE: The legacy of Dr. Don Shirley comes to light in ‘Green Book’

The two characters weren’t friends

Green Book is supposed to be a feel-good film about healing the wounds of racism through friendship and is supposed to be based on the real life relationship of Bronx bouncer Tony Vallelonga and queer black composer Dr. Donald Shirley.

According to the film, in 1962, Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen) found work serving as chauffeur and bodyguard for Dr. Shirley (played by Ali) who is going on tour in the prickly Jim Crow era south.

Like all the movies of this kind, the white character suddenly sees the error of their ways by breaking bread with a magical (and unwaveringly patient) Black person who shows them that perhaps Negroes are people too.

Aside from being predictably over simplified, according to the family of Dr. Shirley the premise is also a blatant, whitewashed lie. In fact, Shirley’s family has been vocal about their disapproval of the flick, during an interview with Shadow and Act Edwin Shirley III, Dr. Donald Shirley’s nephew, went so far as to call the depiction of his uncle a “symphony of lies.”

“My brother never considered Tony to be his “friend”; he was an employee, his chauffeur (who resented wearing a uniform and cap),” Shirley’s only living brother, Maurice wrote in a letter to Black Enterprise. “This is why context and nuance are so important. The fact that a successful, well-to-do Black artist would employ domestics that did NOT look like him, should not be lost in translation.”

Donald Shirley wasn’t estranged from his family

For some reason the film chose to make it seem like Dr. Shirley was estranged from his family, and a bit weary of the Black community in general, but Maurice Shirley says that is just a fantasy concocted (or perhaps assumed) by the white writers.

“At that point [in 1962 when the events of the film supposedly take place], he had three living brothers with whom he was always in contact,” clarified Dr. Shirley.

READ MORE: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Movies like ‘Green Book’ are not meant to be historically accurate

Donald Shirley was VERY pro-Black

During this time when race relations are particularly strained, many creatives are being super cautious to hit the right note and not further marginalize communities that have often been under-represented. But in Green Book not only did that not happen, the filmmakers pretty thoroughly replaced the real life of a Black man with the assumptions of his white employee.

Because Shirley’s perspective is filtered through Vallelonga’s lens, the movie promotes a lot of subtle (and at times not so subtle) stereotypes and cliches that are steeped in white-supremacist attitudes about Blackness.

Shirley who was clearly a brilliant and well educated man, is assumed to look down on the rest of the Black community who aren’t just like him. But a critic from Vanity Fair wrote a piece pointing out the audacity it would take for a white filmmaker to find it appropriate to psychoanalyze a Black man’s alienation from his own blackness in that way; especially while using such crude devices as jokes about Aretha Franklin and fried chicken.

Shirley’s brother says not only was he proud member of the Black community and friends with politically minded Black performers such as Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington, he was also an attendee of Martin Luther King’s March on Selma.

Green Books weren’t shady or just for the south

You would think a movie called Green Book would actually show some respect to namesake, but in the movie they’re treated like an after thought.

According to Esquire, “The Green Book was an annual guide published by Victor Hugo Green and his family between 1936 and 1966, and listed hotels, gas stations, and restaurants around the nation that would be hospitable to Black visitors. Thousands of copies were sold each year to Black travelers well aware that even the most innocent of road trips left them prey to racist humiliations ranging from refusal of service to outright violence.”

READ MORE: Twitter infuriated after ‘white savior’ film ‘Green Book’ wins Best Picture at Golden Globes

These publications were thoughtfully put together and often guided travelers to higher-end locations. But in the film, after Mortensen’s character flicks through the book, he and Ali somehow end up in seedy motels that would never have been included in real life. The film also implies that the guide (and the racism it’s meant to circumvent) are only in the South, when ironically, the book actually began in New York.

What could have been an entertaining and educational narrative, just turned out to be a remake of a story we’ve seen a million times.

The filmmakers refuse to apologize

You’d think after your lead actor was blasted for saying the n-word during press Q&A’s and your whole story premise was being exposed as a lie, that might be the right time to apologize to your audience and ask for forgiveness.

But Vallelonga’s son Nick, who co-wrote Green Book based on anecdotes he alleges he was told by his father, protecting his dad’s legacy means more than acknowledging the glaring holes in his stories.

“Everything in the film is true,” Vallelonga declared in an interview with NBC. “The only creative license we took was combining some stories, time-wise, what happened in this state might have happened in another state,” he said.

“But everything was true, and that was really important to me and Pete (Farrelly) the director, that we told the truth.”

The biggest irony of this project is, the only person who did apologize was Mahershala Ali, when the truth about Dr. Shirley was revealed.

According to Vulture, after the Shirley family made their displeasure with the film known on NPR, Ali contacted Edwin and Maurice Shirley directly.

“I got a call from Mahershala Ali, a very, very respectful phone call, from him personally. He called me and my Uncle Maurice in which he apologized profusely if there had been any offense,” recalled Edwin.

“What he said was, ‘If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry. I did the best I could with the material I had. I was not aware that there were close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character.’”

READ MORE: 7 very legitimate reasons why Black folks are giving the middle finger to the ‘Green Book’ Best Picture Oscar