(Note: This article contains numerous, but necessary plot spoilers)
In these racially divisive times we find ourselves mired in across the country of late, people are understandably desperate for some form of optimistic light hidden within the dark political and cultural abyss where we are now entrapped. So, it’s no wonder that film audiences might crave some sense of uplifting solace and unifying hope in the escapism that Hollywood is often so skilled at manufacturing.
It seems the current film “Green Book” has been anointed as the newly designated cinematic balm to temporarily ease the minds and conscience of troubled souls grappling with the past and current racial divide.
Last week, the Golden Globes honored the film with three awards: Best Supporting Actor ( Mahershala Ali, deservedly so ), Best Screenplay and Best Picture in the Musical or Comedy genre. As a result, some audiences are embracing “Green Book” as not only certified uplifting, “feel good” entertainment by the Hollywood Foreign Press; but also, the latest celluloid personification of Rodney King’s famous statement, “Can’t we all just get along?”.
And of course, who wouldn’t want to get behind a message like that; especially if the message is cloaked within the context of a genuine, honest to goodness, bonafide real-life story? Heck, even the “universally esteemed” former Fox News Channel commentator and self-proclaimed historian, Bill O’Reilly took to Twitter this week to slam those who dared to criticize “Green Book” as anything other than his personally reliable assessment of it as an “excellent” film.
Who could doubt that resounding ironclad endorsement?
The basis of “Green Book” is the deep, profound and decades long friendship between a superbly talented African-American concert pianist and musical genius, Dr. Donald Shirley and Bronx, New York Italian nightclub bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, initially cultivated over an eight-week long concert tour through the racist and segregated “Jim Crow” South in 1962. In both the film and real-life, Dr. Shirley hires Vallelonga to be his driver on this potentially dangerous journey.
At the beginning of the film, Vallelonga ( Viggo Mortensen ) is about as racist as they come. Save for his forward thinking, presumably non-racist wife; Vallelonga, his father and friends don’t bat an eye while speaking in Italian to hide their racist comments, as they refer to the black maintenance workers in the next room as “sacks of coal” and “eggplants”, a thinly veiled reference to the vegetable having a deep dark outer skin like the nearby workers.
Vallelonga’s racist father also admonishes his son in the same scene for sleeping-in, while leaving his beautiful wife ( Linda Cardellini ) alone with the two black workers fixing something in the kitchen. Of course, Vallelonga’s neighborhood friends show up to keep watch over his wife while the black workers are in the house, no doubt to protect her virtue in a manner that would make racist director D.W. Griffith as proud of them, as he was of his women-folk protectin’ Klan kin in his 1915 racist masterpiece film “Birth Of A Nation”.
Vallelonga’s racism runs so deep, he tosses the two drinking glasses that his wife offered to the black men to drink from earlier into the trash.
However, director Peter Farrelly, and his two white screenwriters, weave, a thoroughly “plausible” tale that after eight weeks of road ramblin’ redemption, Vallelonga sees the error inherent in his decades of racism, invites Dr. Shirley to share Christmas dinner with the very same racist family members from the film’s beginning who now miraculously welcome him… and as the closing credits roll, we are told Vallelonga and Dr. Shirley became lifelong friends until their deaths in 2003.
Fade to black. Racism solved. Join hands and sing “Kumbaya”.
All is well for racial harmony in Hollywood, except for the sobering reality that this, thus far, misguidedly lauded film “Green Book” is far from plausible. The supposed lifelong “friendship” between the two key players is nothing less than a mostly fabricated, mendacious tapestry of falsehoods, misleading facts and an egregiously patronizing fiction.
Let’s put the film’s factual reliability aside for a moment. Just a brief moment.
The screenplay as written by Peter Farrelly, Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga is rife with stereotypes and racial epithets that leave no minority unscathed and should offend most everyone in the audience, no matter what the ultimate redemption is at film’s end. Forget about usage of the N-word. Vallelonga is an equal opportunity racist who has vile names for Jews, his own Italian folk, Chinese; not to mention describing Dr. Shirley to his wife early on as “King of the Jungle Bunnies”.
But hey, it’s all in good fun, right?… Don’ mean nuthin’… Fuh-getta-bout-it !
Oh, by the way, did you recognize one of Golden Globe winning screenwriters’ last name? Nick Vallelonga? Seems Nick Vallelonga is Tony’s V’s son, who based his screenplay on his tape recorded interviews with his old man. Add to that, son Nicky V. spent years trying to get Dr. Shirley to agree to become involved in the making of a film based on Shirley and the elder Vallelonga’s driver – employer relationship. According to Dr. Shirley’s surviving family, the gifted musician repeatedly refused to give his permission to such a story stating that he knew Hollywood would misrepresent his life.
Then there’s the multiple stereotypes of which space does not allow for all of them to be described, that are included in this snot-filled pig’s nose of a film wrapped in a gilded blanket of faux redemption. However, a few notably stand out.
There’s the scene where Vallelonga encourages an initially reluctant Dr. Shirley to eat some Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time. As part of his encouragement, Vallelonga states, “You people love fried chicken, grits and collard greens”. On its face, maybe the statement is much ado about nothing. As a Latino, I’ve been known to enjoy my fair share of tacos, rice and frijoles with gusto. However, there is something uncomfortably cringeworthy about this scene, especially in our current time of politically correct cultural awareness, when to perpetuate such a stereotype of ethnic cuisine about blacks would be grounds for public vilification, likely career loss and disgrace.
Making this scene even more cringeworthy and yet profound in its cluelessness, is when later in the film, Dr. Shirley and Vallelonga are guests at a black tie dinner at a Southern plantation-style estate. To great fanfare, the racist hosts proudly have their kitchen servants parade a menu of food prepared especially for Dr. Shirley and the myriad white guests… mounds of fried chicken and corn on the cob.
Another scene has Vallelonga deriding Dr. Shirley as being snobbishly unaware of the popular black music artists of that era such as Chubby Checker, Little Richard or Aretha Franklin. At one point, Vallelonga is so surprised at Dr. Shirley’s apparent cluelessness of popular black music, he says “I’m more black than you are.”
No matter to the screenwriters of this racially progressive opus that, according to his family, Dr. Shirley loved listening to the music of Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughn, Leontyne Price and yes… Aretha Franklin.
However, Farrelly, Currie and Vallelonga aren’t content to minimize Dr. Shirley in his fashion alone. They strive to embarrass him as well. Whatever Dr. Shirley’s real life sexual orientation, what purpose does it serve to have a scene where Vallelonga has to “save” Dr. Shirley from the local police after, allegedly according to this script, the musician apparently goes to a local YMCA shower for random anonymous sex?
Were the 1970’s era Village People technical advisers on this film?
The audience is treated to a scene where the heretofore dignified Dr. Shirley is seen naked, squatting on a bathroom shower floor, handcuffed next to his supposed white sexual encounter. It’s up to Vallelonga to placate and bribe the cops to uncuff the naked, sitting virtuoso musician and set him free.
A more egregious, humiliating and obvious example of a cinematic undereducated “White Savior” freeing the cultured black man from his literal chains off the floor would be hard to envision.
As to the facts of this film and Farrelly, Currie and most notably Nick Villelonga’s award winning screenplay; Dr. Shirley’s surviving family have come forward disputing many other portions of the film as false. They vehemently dispute Dr. Shirley was estranged from his brother and family, which is a key talking point within the film. They say Shirley was in touch frequently with his loved ones.
However, the most damning accusation from Dr. Shirley’s family casts doubt on the emotional linchpin of the film. Dr. Shirley’s family emphatically state their relative and Tony Vallelonga were not ever “friends”, but solely employer and employee. Nothing more, nothing less.
Vallelonga’s son has been unable to produce anything other than his father’s recorded statements that the two were “lifelong friends”. If they were indeed friends up until their deaths, wouldn’t the Shirley family support such a truth?
If they were indeed friends over multiple ensuing decades, wouldn’t screenwriter Vallelonga be able to produce something tangible as proof beyond his father’s words on tape.
Ask yourself a common sense question. How does a racist family calling Dr. Shirley and blacks “eggplants”, “sacks of coal” and “jungle bunnies” at the film’s start, suddenly become loving, accepting and welcoming of Dr. Shirley over Christmas dinner, having never met him before face to face; and their first meeting is a family function after only eight weeks of first hearing his name?
Eureka, Peter Farrelly has discovered the cure for racism Mankind has sought for thousands of years… Road Trip !
Surely, such lifelong friends at the film’s end credits would include a montage of photographs of the two sharing good times over the subsequent years, right? But no, we get one stock photo of Dr. Shirley shot for his record label with a misleading caption about the two staying friends until their deaths in 2003 months apart… and one other shot of the two men in separate photos years later, apart – not together.
The facts more support the likelihood that the Vallelongas, father and son both coveted, and ultimately both achieved, some degree of Hollywood notoriety by either embellishing or fabricating encounters and events that would one day make for a hit film.
The family of Dr. Shirley claims no one contacted them to participate in the film. Several members only found out about it after Mahershala Ali tweeted about completing a film that they recognized as being their relative’s story. Director Farrelly incredulously claims he would have contacted them, but he didn’t know there was family to contact.
As the facts have been trickling out and the falsehoods about “Green Book” begin to unravel, like rats trying to escape a sinking ship, Farrelly and Vallelonga have been running for cover. Farrelly has in interviews thrown actress and executive producer Octavia Spencer under the bus; all but blaming her for signing off on the chicken-eating scenes and other portions of the film that he claims he found questionable.
Meantime, as the saying goes, “Karma is a bitch”. As of this writing, Farrelly finds himself defending his reputation following news that he exposed his genitals to Cameron Diaz, and perhaps others, during the filming of “There’s Something About Mary” years ago. Not a good revelation about Farrelly during the #MeToo movement weeks before Oscar time.
While, Vallelonga has deleted his Twitter account after the discovery of his 2015 tweet to Donald Trump, saying Muslims celebrated the falling of the Twin Towers in Jersey City on 9/11.
Live by the lie… Die by the lie.
“Green Book” is, at best, a fairly mediocre “feel good” story about what audiences, perhaps mostly white audiences, would hope be possible amid the racial strife evident today. Its only truly redeeming factor is the exceptional performance of Mahershala Ali as Dr. Shirley who, for the most part, remains the one dignified figure among the key players. Had the film not intentionally and deceptively purported itself to be a work based on fact, but instead, a hopeful piece of fiction envisioning what could and should be… maybe then, it would be worthy of praise as an optimistic fantasy.
As it stands, “Green Book” is nothing less than a travesty of lies, created by Farrelly and the younger Vallelonga, not to build racial bridges; but rather to cynically build their career cachet in Hollywood and more importantly, their bottom line bank accounts.
Let’s hope the moviegoing public and the future award show voters; especially The Oscars see this piece of gilded garbage for the vulgar social and personal insult it truly is.