The producers of Green Book, while aiming to tell the story of racism and disenfranchisement in the Jim Crow south, have done little to adequately address the controversy surrounding the movie which involves the family of Dr. Don Shirley, one of the real-life characters depicted in the film.
First there was the horrific use of the n-word by Viggo Mortensen during a Q&A session on racial progress in America. While he has since apologized and vowed to never use the word again, even in giving an example of why it shouldn’t be used, the moment still lingers.
Last month ahead of awards season, Shadow & Act broke the story that Shirley’s brother and nephew felt the movie did little to accurately portray the relationship between the two lead characters, Shirley, a distinguished Black pianist played by Mahershala Ali, and Tony Lip, his white driver played by Viggo Mortensen. Shirley’s family also said they were disappointed that Lip was portrayed as a “white savior” while Shirley’s influence in the civil rights era was downplayed. In response to the story, Ali reached out to the family and apologized that he did not do more research into the role.
Which brings us to today. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, actress Octavia Spencer, who serves as one of the film’s producers, stepped in to give her side of why she felt the criticism was unnecessary.
“The whole ‘white savior’ thing was tossed around in regard to other movies that I have been a part of from that era [The Help and Hidden Figures], so when I read this script and it was about a black man who was from a place of prominence and had agency and actually existed, I wanted to be a part of telling his story,” she said.
“He had agency — he hired an Italian-American bouncer to drive him through the Deep South. None of the characters that I played from that time period had agency,” she continued.
“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.”
Lip’s son, Nick Vallelonga, who was the lead writer on the film also responded to the backlash, apologizing for the family’s discomfort with his version of events, and explained that he just wanted to see his father’s account come to life.
The movie is an industry darling this award season, winning five Golden Globes on Sunday. Ali’s win for Best Supporting Actor was a bitter-sweet moment–on one hand he deserves recognition for the true skill in his acting ability, but on the other, the win was ridden with the thought that once again, Hollywood muddled the story at the expense of erasing important elements of a Black man’s life.
Critics predict it will be a top contender for the Oscar when nominations are announced later this month. But regardless of how many awards the movie wins, Black Twitter wasted no time in dissecting the problematic levels of confusion in Spencer’s statement.
Just a few months ago, Spencer’s former co-star, Viola Davis, reflected on her role in “The Help” and how the narrative de-centered the voices of the Black women who were the subject of the story. Why Spencer can’t see the correlation between the public’s issue with “Green Book,” which was similar in its criticism of “The Help,” is deeply troubling.
She needs to take a step back and realize that anti-Blackness is embedded within the framework of American society, and inflating the urge to tell the stories of white men, whose stories we’ve heard and digested for so long, does the exact opposite of what she hoped to do in her diversity pitch.