A Penis, Trump, and 9/11: How ‘Green Book’ Became the Most Controversial Oscars Movie of the Year
From a star using the N-word, the director flashing his dong, and a writer tweeting 9/11 conspiracies, the feel-good race drama is now a feel-angry lightning rod. What happened?
This year’s Oscars race is populated by a British royal in a manipulative and steamy love triangle with two other women, a black comedy reassessing the rise and legacy of Dick Cheney, and a Spike Lee drama titled BlacKkKlansman. And yet the most controversial movie of awards season has become, in an unlikely turn, Green Book.
The historical dramedy, about the friendship forged between legendary musician Dr. Don Shirley and his boorish chauffeur during a tour of the civil rights-era Deep South, has come under fire for its factual inaccuracies, comments made by star Viggo Mortensen, objections from Dr. Shirley’s family, its anodyne treatment of race, the nearly all-white racial makeup of its creative and producing team, and the simple fact that it keeps winning awards despite many critics ruling that it is not very good.
But this week, days after Green Book took home three trophies at the Golden Globe Awards including Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy, two truly wild new scandals emerged: a man flashing famous women his penis and a writer tweeting with Donald Trump about Muslims cheering 9/11.
Only in the deranged hellscape of 2019 are these talking points in an Oscars campaign.
On that latter point first: Nick Vallelonga, who co-wrote the Green Book screenplay, helped produce the film, and is the real-life son of film subject Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, had replied to Donald Trump on Twitter in a November 2015 tweet falsely corroborating Trump’s allegation that Muslim people in Jersey City were seen cheering as the Twin Towers fell across the river on 9/11.
At a rally, Trump had said, “I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.” In response on Twitter, Vallelonga wrote, “100% correct. Muslims in Jersey City cheering when towers went down. I saw it, as you did, possibly on local CBS News.”
Vallelonga’s representative, when reached for comment, said, “The twitter account has been deleted… not sure if any comment is actually needed here.” (On Thursday, after this story was published, Vallelonga issued an apology for the 2015 tweet and promised to “do better.” “I especially deeply apologize to the brilliant and kind Mahershala Ali, and all members of the Muslim faith, for the hurt I have caused," he wrote in a statement to TheWrap.)
Trump’s assertion was debunked by numerous news outlets. The fact that Vallelonga’s tweet was sent several years ago has led some to wonder if it’s fair to litigate it in the context of Green Book’s awards season now, to which we say of course it is fair.
First of all, in the relentless news cycle that goes into outrage overdrive especially during awards season, it is naive to not consider any skeleton from the past or grave misstep fair game for discussion. But it’s especially relevant when you consider the themes of Green Book and, more, the identities of the men who wrote and directed it.
Farrelly and Vallelonga have often talked about how their film could be looked at as a model for building bridges of understanding between people of different backgrounds, beliefs, and races, with Farrelly’s Globes speech invocation—“All we have to do is talk!”—mocked after the fact. A marginalizing belief shared publicly in a tweet about a routinely othered community notoriously subject to unjust hatred born out of a lack of understanding? That certainly seems of note when it comes from a person who wrote a film about those very themes.
(That Green Book star Mahershala Ali, who plays Dr. Shirley, is a Muslim doesn’t make the tweet any more offensive, but it certainly makes the entire controversy more head-slappingly unbelievable.)
The tweet scandal arose the same day The Cut published a piece resurfacing anecdotes from two separate 1998 features about director Peter Farrelly in which he would, as a joke, expose his penis to Cameron Diaz, which he claims is the kind of raunchy behavior that sold her on taking a role in There’s Something About Mary.
In the age of #MeToo anecdotes and during only the second post-Harvey Weinstein Oscars, it’s a shocking story to hear about a frontrunner for a Best Director nomination, even if all parties spoke about the incidents at the time good-naturedly. He apologized Thursday to Diaz in a statement, saying, “I was an idiot. I did this decades ago and I thought I was being funny and the truth is I’m embarrassed and it makes me cringe now. I’m deeply sorry.”
These are just the two most recent in an exhausting list of micro-controversies, scandals, and debates that have dotted Green Book’s journey through award season, though seemingly have little effect on its reception from voters, judging from its haul at the Globes Sunday night and its continued steamrolling of various nominations.
Early on, Mortensen was criticized for using the N-word during a panel discussion while talking about the difference in racial attitudes now from when the film takes place. He later apologized saying he has “no right to even imagine the hurt that is caused by hearing the word in any context.”
A major conversation recently stemmed from various members of Dr. Shirley’s objecting to some of the liberties that were taken with the musician’s biography, including the insinuation that he was estranged from his family and that he didn’t feel as if he belonged in the civil rights movement, when in fact Dr. Shirley was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and was present for the march at Selma. His nephew told Shadow and Act that Dr. Shirley and Vallelonga were never really friends or anything more than chauffeur and passenger. His last surviving brother called the film “a symphony of lies.”
How factual a biopic should be is its own debate, as is the responsibility of taking liberties with the truth for the blatant goal of making a story more digestible or broadly appealing. (That Green Book ends with title cards catching audiences up on later developments in Dr. Shirley and Vallelonga’s lives does tend to telegraph that what you had seen was some sort of narrative of record.)
Farrelly and Vallelonga have defended the film’s accuracy, though perhaps a little too stringently. Dr. Shirley’s niece Yvonne Shirley told The Hollywood Reporter she hopes the two “will abandon their defensive stance and reflect on why they made the choices they made.” Mortensen, meanwhile, called the Shirley family’s criticisms of the film “unjustified” and accused them of lying about how close they were to Dr. Shirley.
A choice in particular that is a major sticking point was to not involve Shirley’s family in the making of the film. (Vallelonga had interviewed Dr. Shirley himself decades before.) Who owns a story is volatile conversation as is, but especially so when that story is one about civil rights and representation.
Octavia Spencer, who is a producer on the film, offered her take to The Hollywood Reporter: “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.”
Should any of this matter when it comes to Green Book and its Oscars future? Cultural critic Mark Harris had the best thoughts on this, responding to the insinuation that there is some sort of targeted smear campaign happening against Green Book. “Anybody calling the Green Book talk a ‘takedown campaign’ or the like is smart enough to know that it is completely fair game for anyone who feels passionately about a movie to say to Academy voters, ‘Look hard at what you are saying by what you choose to reward,’” he tweeted.
It’s not all bad news for Green Book. The film still has strong supporters, many of whom are high-profile members of the industry. Universal went ahead with a press event in support of the film scheduled the same day Vallelonga deactivated his Twitter account, during which Dr. Shirley’s godson, Dr. Muhammad Hatim, spoke highly about how accurately the film captured his father’s spirit, according to IndieWire.
In fact, the more people criticize the film the louder the supporters become, which has contributed to a peculiarly harsh discourse surrounding the film that is certainly at odds with the tenor of conversation Green Book’s very plot and themes champion. It’s a vulnerable stance to outwardly like something; anything said to you that is different reads like an attack, which only sparks a more invigorated retaliation.
Our first read of Green Book was simple bemusement. It’s a story told in such a predictable, manufactured way that we’re hardly surprised people were swooning for it, and frankly couldn’t fault them for it. In fact, our initial reaction was how inoffensive the movie seemed. How wrong we turned out to be.