The great Green Book Oscars debate of 2019 might seem like a distant memory, but star Viggo Mortensen isn’t exactly ready to let sleeping dogs lie. Asked in a new interview about the best picture winner—which was accused of trafficking in white savior tropes, centering its civil rights-era story not on the Black musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, who won an Oscar for the role) but instead Mortensen’s Italian bodyguard and driver—Mortensen lamented the film had become shorthand for awards bait pablum.
“It’s become a cliché to say, ‘Is this movie going to be the Green Book of this year?’ Green Book has become a pejorative,” he said to The Independent. Of the censure Green Book received, the star added, “Much of the criticism that was leveled at that movie was not only unreasonable, but it was inaccurate, mendacious, and irresponsible. It’s based on a load of bullshit and an ax to grind and little else.”
Mortensen didn’t specify what criticism he felt was problematic. But the film was largely condemned by members of Shirley’s family for the way it took liberties with the musician and his life, specifically how Green Book shows Shirley largely estranged from his family
“They decided to create a story of a white man’s redemption and self-realization using an extraordinary Black life and a history of Black oppression in this country as their backdrop,” Yvonne Shirley, Don Shirley’s great-niece, told The Hollywood Reporter last year. “Many viewers are simply tired of that devaluing narrative.”
In an earlier interview with Shadow and Act, Don Shirley’s brother, Maurice Shirley, called the film a “symphony of lies.” Maurice Shirley and his son, Edwin Shirley III, both claimed they received calls from Ali to apologize for the film’s oversights.
“He called me and my Uncle Maurice in which he apologized profusely if there had been any offense,” Edwin Shirley explained. “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.’”
Ali never publicly confirmed the conversation. But asked about the film’s brewing controversy backstage at the Golden Globes last year, after he won best supporting actor, Ali said, “My job is always the same: I have to look at what I am doing and be responsible for it.”
He added, “I spoke to the studio and the family, and at the end of the day you wish everyone was happy and you don’t want to offend anyone in any capacity.”
Green Book was written by Brian Hayes Curry, director Peter Farrelly, and Nick Vallelonga, whose father was the basis for Mortensen’s character, Tony Vallelonga. The script won an Oscar for best original screenplay. But while its journey to the 91st annual Academy Awards was instantly divisive—Spike Lee, who won his first competitive Oscar at the same ceremony, famously turned his back to the stage when Green Book was announced as the best picture winner—the movie did have some prominent defenders.
“I knew Don Shirley, and, in fact, had an office across the street from his at Carnegie Hall, and I experienced much of what he did at the same time. This movie is accurate, it is true, and it’s a wonderful movie that everyone should see,” Harry Belafonte wrote to The Root in 2018. “The few people who appear to be objecting to the film’s depiction of the time and the man are dead wrong, and, if the basis of their resentment stems from it having been written and/or directed by someone who isn’t African American, I disagree with them even more. There are many perspectives from which to tell the same story and all can be true.”
As for Mortensen, he said the critiques against Green Book were ultimately out of his hands. “Does it affect what I’m doing, or how people perceive me as an actor? Maybe it does,” he said. “But I can’t really do anything about that.”
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