'Green Book' Controversy: Why Mahershala Ali's New Film Has Become A Topic Of Debate

It's not out in the UK until February, but has already raised eyebrows in the US.

‘Green Book’ was the big winner at Sunday night’s Golden Globes but not everyone was happy to see it doing so well.

The film tells the true story of celebrated jazz pianist Don Shirley, who toured through the Deep South of the US in the 1960s, a time when racial segregation and hatred made doing so especially dangerous.

Don (played by Oscar-winning ‘Moonlight’ actor Mahershala Ali) hired hardman Tony Lip (Lord Of The Rings’ Viggo Mortensen) to be his driver and bodyguard, as he navigates the region, where he encounters racism and discrimination.

Viggo and Mahershala Ali in 'Green Book'
Viggo and Mahershala Ali in 'Green Book'

The movie takes its name from a guidebook published to point African-Americans at that time in the direction of restaurants and hotels that would allow them to stay.

Green Book’s Golden Globes wins – for Best Supporting Actor, Best Film (Musical or Comedy) and Best Screenplay – mean Hollywood is now waiting to see how many Oscar nominations it garners, but like we said, a lot of people are not best pleased about this.

So, what’s the controversy?

Let’s start with the Shirley family’s complaints

The ‘Green Book’ screenplay was co-written by Nick Vallelonga, the son of Viggo’s character Tony, so there are no complaints from him when it comes to the film’s plot and the actors’ portrayal of two men.

But when the film was released in US cinemas back in November last year, Don’s relatives swiftly condemned it, with his brother, Maurice, issuing a statement which claimed the pianist “never considered Tony to be his friend”.

“He was an employee, his chauffeur (who resented wearing a uniform and cap),” he said. “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.”

They also claimed that nobody had contacted them while the film was in production.

Don Shirley
Don Shirley
Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Mahershala responded right away with an apology addressed to Don’s nephew, Edwin Shirley III, in which he said: “I did the best I could with the material I had.”

At the Golden Globes, he once again addressed the family’s upset, stating that he “respects” them and wishes them well.

I have a job to do and I have to continue to do my job as I move on to my next project and treat everyone I work with with respect,” he told press in the winners’ room. “In this case I didn’t know they were around. I made contact and I’ve spoken to the studio and I have to move on at this point. But I do wish them well.

“At the end of the day you wish everyone was happy. In any situation you don’t want anybody to be upset at anything or be offended in any capacity so I wish them well and send them my love.”

Then there’s the row over how ‘Green Book’ addresses race

Numerous critics have questioned the way ‘Green Book’ handles its central theme of race, with some accusing it of being a “white saviour movie”.

In December, HuffPost US critics Zeba Blay and Matthew Bradley concluded that the film is “tone-deaf on race”, with Zeba singling out a scene that shows Tony teaching Don how to eat fried chicken as one that “epitomises a lot of what’s off about this movie”.

“I found the tension around Don Shirley’s blackness here and throughout the movie incredibly reductive and overdone,” Zeba argued. “Throughout the movie there’s this exchange happening between Don and Tony, in which Tony helps Don get in touch with his blackness and Don helps Tony realise that not all ‘blacks’ are so bad, which is the entire movie in a nutshell.”

This fried chicken scene has been disputed by the Shirley family too by the way, who say he had “definitely” eaten it before hiring Tony.

Viggo Mortensen didn’t help matters by using the n-word at a screening

The film’s lead star landed himself in hot water after using a racial slur during a panel talk in November.

Viggo at the Golden Globes
Viggo at the Golden Globes
David Crotty via Getty Images

When numerous publications reported on his use of the word, the actor released a statement explaining that he was “making the point that many people casually used the N-word at the time in which the movie story takes place, in 1962”.

“Although my intention was to speak strongly against racism, I have no right to even imagine the hurt that is caused by hearing that word in any context, especially from a white man,” he said. “I do not use the word in private or in public. I am very sorry that I did use the full word last night, and will not utter it again.”

‘Green Book’ will be out in UK cinemas from Friday 1 February. Watch the trailer below…


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