Accuracy on Screen (the Green Book debate)
Every year at about this time, I vote in several critics group on the best films and performances of the year. In one group, a few of the critics were singing the praises of The Favourite. Among the many things I didn’t like about it, was the fact that it was fictional. The entire story is based on a mere rumor that Queen Anne had a lesbian affair with Sarah Churchill. The filmmakers turn the story into a love triangle, and a lot of craziness that never happened. I don’t believe you should fictionalize when you have a movie about people in history.
Anyway, one critic in this group seemed bothered that I mentioned The Favourite not being a true story and he said (knowing Green Book is my favorite of the year), “Neither is ‘Green Book.”
I replied, “Yes it is! One of the writers was Nick Vallelonga, the son of the guy portrayed in the movie.”
He smirked and sarcastically said, “Oh yeah, well that means it’s true then.”
A few days later, he posted a story on Facebook that was written by a critic in Vanity Fair, and it was about Green Book not being a true story. Normally on Facebook, I hate when people try debating me on a topic they’re wrong about. I do love when people post stories that can prove their point (as long as they’re from a reliable source). So I clicked the link wondering what the story had to say.
It was written by K. Austin Collins and deals a lot with Dr. Don Shirley’s brother, who had some problems with the movie. He claimed he had a good relationship with his brother and proof of that was the fact that Dr. Shirley was the best man at his wedding a few years after the events depicted in the film. Well, that doesn’t prove anything, as one of the things covered in the film was Tony telling Shirley to reach out to his brother, with a lecture on loneliness.
The two other things I remember from the Vanity Fair article, is that Shirley’s brother complained that his brother would never be driven in anything other than a black limo, not a blue Cadillac like the one in the movie. Really? That’s a gripe about the accuracy? What’s next, that the tires weren’t white walls?
The brother also claims that Dr. Shirley was never great friends with Tony because he was merely his chauffeur, and it was just a working relationship. They also speculate as to the fact that it would’ve been odd for Shirley to not have heard the music of Little Richard, and it wouldn’t have been the first time he ate fried chicken.
I can see that regarding the chicken, but it’s perfectly believable that Dr. Shirley might not have heard Little Richard. Nowadays, we have so many different ways to listen to music. In 1962, you had a transistor radio. And this is a guy that spends hours playing classical and jazz pieces on the piano. It’s very likely he hadn’t heard some of the artists of the day, but even if that’s a bit of a stretch for some people…isn’t that rather small potatoes? And I wondered why this critic felt the need to knock this movie. I did some research on Collins and saw he was an African-American. I immediately thought about a black guy I met at a party that hadn’t seen the movie, but already had complaints about it. He was saying things like, “I don’t want to see another movie where they whitewash situations, or there’s a white savior.”
I immediately thought about another critic in our group that used that term. I was getting irked. Especially because…it’s not like Tony “Lip” Vallelonga is some savior, educating Dr. Shirley on the ways of the world. It’s not like audiences needed an Italian guy to help us navigate various themes. These are two guys that learn from each other. Tony learns a heckuva lot more from Dr. Shirley, but…this isn’t some deep dive into racism in the south in the early ‘60s. It covers that ground, sure. But…it’s more of a road trip/buddy picture. It’s not preachy in how it does this, and it’s very entertaining to watch. It pulls off a lot of things that are hard to do (this is coming from me, who hated Driving Miss Daisy).
Critics slamming Green Book are coming off as elitist since word of mouth on the movie is good. It’s more of a populist film than a pretentious, artsy film that critics can feel smart about recommending to the public that then scratches their head when they see it – think Roma, Tree of LIfe, Call Me By Your Name, or The Killing of a Sacred Deer (which Collins gave a good review to, and it’s an awful mess).
He also put the movie If Beale Street Could Talk on his Top 10 list, which is actually one of the worst movies of the year (I’d gladly bet $1,000, going to charity, that if we take 100 random strangers, of various races — the vast majority will prefer Green Book to Beale Street). I can’t knock him as a critic, though. He had a great Top 10 list (I was pleasantly surprised to see he ranked First Reformed as his favorite of the year). He’s a Harvard graduate, so he’s probably got an IQ 100 points higher than mine. And the dude does New York Times crossword puzzles. I’m not talking about “doing them.” Hell, I’m lucky to get a quarter of the way through one (and that’s not the Sunday paper). This guy is actually creating them, and yet…he didn’t like this wonderful film. It blows my mind. That lead me to wonder why…in one of his favorite movies of the year (that didn’t make his Top 10 list) — BlacKkKlansman — did he not have a problem with the inaccuracies in that. To name the few that come to mind: A pivotal Jewish character that was made up, a white cop that does racist stuff and is eventually arrested for it (which is something that also bothered Boots Riley, who made one of the best movies of the year — Sorry to Bother You), the KKK bombing a building. The love interest who was a radical that hated cops. The cross burned on Stallworth’s lawn when it’s discovered who he really is. All completely made up. In fact, in the real Ron Stallworth story, not much happened when compared to what you see in the exciting scenes in the film. He called the KKK and joined, but it’s not like they were able to stop a lot of crimes because of that. None of this is to detract from the stellar career of Ron Stallworth and what he accomplished as the first black African-American police officer in Colorado Springs.
Collins loved the movie Hidden Figures (as did I). It took some liberties with what really happened in that story. Why no complaints from him on that picture?
I was surprised he didn’t like Detroit (which was a mess of a film). I was also surprised he didn’t have a problem with the fact that they also made up a lot in this movie (the worst being a cop that shoots and kills a black kid in the beginning, but is still allowed to stay on the force; and later rapes women and kills people…and it wasn’t how those things went down).
Two period pieces getting Oscar buzz — Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite, have a lot of bogus stuff. In Mary Queen of Scots, the two Queens never met the way they do in climatic fashion near the end of the film. There were a few other things that never happened as well. The Favourite is an entire movie based on a lesbian love triangle, none of which happened. It was merely rumoured that Queen Anne had a lesbian affair. Not to mention the fact that everything else that happened in The Favourite feels false — the way characters talked and acted, are nothing like they would’ve in that time.
In Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, Hugh Jackman plays Gary Hart. There were lots of things in that movie that never happened. The one that bothered me most was Hart being kind to a young black reporter who is afraid of flying. He calms him down and gives him advice on what to do to stay calm. Uh…why are they making up a character and what happened to him on the plane? So that we’re more sympathetic to Hart? There’s also an entire press conference at the end where he apologizes…that never happened.
One movie getting some award nominations is Can You Ever Forgive Me? An interesting little film. Well, that has a scene where Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) goes on a date with a woman that runs a bookstore. She ends up sabotaging that relationship before it even gets started. Well, that character and date never happened, but…I don’t have a problem with that. They’re trying to show the audience what this character was like, and since they’re going to create some date she’s going on…they figured they’d make it a character we were already introduced to. That’s why it’s easy to forgive filmmakers for doing that, just as I have no problem if it turns out Dr. Shirley had heard Sam Cooke or Chubby Checker before he’s introduced to them on the film’s road trip. Those scenes are about showing how Tony has biases and stereotypes about people of a different race. He shows his ignorance more when, in reference to the fried chicken, saying, “If people said Italians liked pizza and meatballs, it wouldn’t bother me.”
And as I said, his son wrote this and talked extensively to his father over the years about this story (as he told me, he was working on this story for decades, even as a teenager, often recording the interviews). And let me remind you…this article in Vanity Fair talks about the Cadillac being black, not blue. Let that sink in. That’s what this critic and article want to criticize.
Other recent movies that had fake events– I, Tonya. It had too many to list. And what makes it worse is that many of them felt like they were done to make us have sympathy for an Olympic ice skater that paid goons to bash in the kneecaps of a rival. Instead of movie critics condemning a movie glorifying this wretched person, she was paid handsomely for the movie rights and got to hobnob with stars at various awards shows. But heaven forbid they get the color of the Cadillac wrong in Green Book.
Spielberg’s The Post got a lot of awards. It created a fictional character that expressed concerns the board had about a woman running the paper, in order to create an antagonist. That’s always something that bothers me in movies. I remember when Soul Surfer came out, doing some research on the one teenage girl that’s so mean to Bethany Hamilton, even after she loses her arm to a Great White. Turns out, she was created by the screenwriter because they wanted to add more drama to the story (because having your arm chomped off by a shark isn’t dramatic enough).
I’ve often wondered why critics don’t attack documentaries more. I started off as a big fan of Michael Moore documentaries after the first few, but when he started lying in them and editing footage in certain ways…I had to chalk his pictures up to fictional documentaries. I hardly hear any critic complaining about that; probably because they agree with him politically or are against what his movie is attacking. But don’t you dare have Dr. Shirley in a blue Cadillac. He wouldn’t be caught dead in one…according to his brother.
I loved the movie Molly’s Game. Guess what? The lawyer Idris Elba played — fictional. And one of the things that made that movie great was the chemistry between him and Molly (Jessica Chastain).
Queen was my favorite group in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It’s one of the reasons I wasn’t the biggest fan of Bohemian Rhapsody which had numerous things in it that didn’t happen. A few of those include: the way Mercury met his love interest and starts a relationship that lasted the rest of his life, the way Mercury and bassist John Deacon joined the band, and many other things. Most of the music biopics you see have bogus stuff. Sometimes they just leave things out, like in Ray. They never mention one wife, so you think he’s getting married for the first time. They also leave out a handful of children.
As a huge fan of The Doors, I can tell you…most Doors fans hated all the ridiculous stuff that movie contained. When I interviewed the screenwriter at the time, he admitted being bothered by the stuff Oliver Stone created for that.
Now, those inaccuracies are only from the recent movies that popped into my mind. It’s a safe bet that any movie dealing with real people will have them.
Collins gave good reviews to John Wick 2, Support the Girls, The Conjuring 2, and Baby Driver. Although those are all fictional stories, they had people acting in a way no real person would act. But Ansel Elgort was driving a red Subaru WRX in Baby Driver. At least it wasn’t a blue Caddie.