Movies

Green Book Has a Real Head Start on Awards-Season Backlash

The 2018 Movie Club: Final entry.

Brian Currie, Nick Vallelonga, and Peter Farrelly onstage at the Golden Globes.
Brian Currie, Nick Vallelonga, and Peter Farrelly of Green Book accept the Best Screenplay award on Sunday.
Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, K. Austin CollinsAmy Nicholson, and Bilge Ebiri—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.

Dear Amy, Bilge, and Kam,

Since poetry’s been done, for this last post let me try my hand at the genre of true confession: As of this writing I haven’t yet seen Green Book, the ode to racially redemptive friendship that just won Best Motion Picture Comedy, as well as Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor, at the Golden Globes. It was hard to make myself move it higher in the priority pile after happening across Odie Henderson’s astute and scathing takedown on his blog. (I try not to read reactions to a film before watching it, but Odie had me at the line about Viggo Mortensen’s white-savior character turning into “Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Nygmalion.”)

Or maybe the obstacle to watching Green Book was that I was too conscious of the controversies that have dogged the film in the run-up to its opening. First there was Mortensen’s tin-eared use of the N-word at a post-screening Q&A. (He was trying to make a point about how loaded the word’s use is, but with or without the full slur added, the point didn’t make a lot of sense.) Then the descendants of Don Shirley, the black concert pianist played by Mahershala Ali (who won that Best Supporting Actor Globe) expressed their discontent that director Peter Farrelly never sought them out to consult about their famous relative’s life story; according to Shirley’s last living brother, the movie’s portrait of Shirley’s redemptive friendship with his white driver was little more than “a symphony of lies.” Ali and Mortensen’s contrasting responses to the family—the first apologetic, the second defensive and even confrontational—generated further waves of online anger. In short, I had been through several full cycles of Green Book backlash by the time I resolved to actually see it—not an unusual dynamic in awards season, though it’s early in the game for a movie to have accumulated this much negative baggage.

Granted, the Globes are reliably bonkers and generally less useful as a predictor of Academy Awards voters’ choices than, say, that British woman who tells the future by throwing asparagus spears in the air and interpreting the way they land. But it’s still noteworthy to see a semisweep by a movie that none of the critics I know is even talking about. Have we mentioned Green Book once in this weeklong dissection of 2018 movies? Or, for that matter, have we touched on Bohemian Rhapsody, Sunday night’s other surprise big winner, or The Wife, which gave Glenn Close her first major award for film acting (her previous two Globes were for work on television, in Damages and The Lion in Winter)? In their very unexpectedness, the Globe voters’ choices point up the fact that there exists an infinite variety of year-end movie conversations, even if some of them are only being had by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Now, of course, I’m keenly curious if also trepidatious about Green Book, which will probably be the next movie I watch. I’m trying not to pre-judge it going in, although that fried chicken scene sounds rough. One of Movie Club week’s chief pleasures is always the zigzag path it leads me on through the year’s releases, catching up either on things I resisted, like Green Book, or things I simply allowed to drift past in the unending current of new releases. Because of the three of you, I spent the time in between writing posts this week watching films like Sandi Tan’s nimble and dazzling documentary Shirkers, which was on Amy’s Top 10 list and almost certainly would have made mine had I managed to see it in time, or Matthew Porterfield’s excellent Sollers Point, a naturalistic slice-of-life drama about a young ex-convict in Baltimore, which came recommended by Kam. Maybe after Green Book I’ll dive into Where Is Kyra?, a character study of a middle-aged woman at the edge of poverty that, according to Bilge, is a key document of the Michelle Pfeifferaissance.

This is part of looking back on the year in movies, too: letting great films pass you by knowing you’ll get to them when you can, resisting others because of the media discourse that builds up around them and then realizing you need to dive in and figure them out for yourself, being late, being wrong, being open to changing your mind. I love Movie Club in part because it’s a cleansing public admission that even those of us who watch hundreds of films a year can’t keep up with all there is to see, that we need each other to help fill in the holes while accepting that gaps in our knowledge and understanding (of movies, of the world) will always remain. Most of all, though, I love Movie Club because my favorite critics—among whom you three figure prominently—make me laugh, think, and write harder than at any other time during the year. Thank you all so much for being a part of it as we head into 2019, already feeling overwhelmed, perpetually behind, and incredibly lucky.

Love,
Dana

Read the previous entry.