Green Book marred by controversy as film awards season revs up

The acclaimed film Green Book, based on real-life events surrounding an unlikely friendship in the 1960s between a white driver and black musician, is facing a litany of controversy that could affect its chances for an Oscar.

Acclaimed movie about race relations in the 1960s Deep South faces scrutiny over storyline, writer's old tweet

Viggo Mortensen, left, and Mahershala Ali star in the Peter Farrelly-directed film Green Book, which has been marred by controversy despite critical and audience acclaim. (TIFF)

It won three Golden Globe Awards but the dramedy Green Book — which also scored the People's Choice Award at last year's Toronto International Film Festival — is facing increasing scrutiny following a series of controversies.

First, there was star Viggo Mortensen's use of the N-word at a Q&A session for the film, which traces the real-life relationship in the 1960s between esteemed black concert pianist Don Shirley and his white chauffeur-bodyguard Tony "Lip" Vallelonga as they traveled through the U.S. Deep South.

Mortensen had used the racial term to illustrate a point about progress in society but it didn't sit well with the audience and he later apologized.

Real-life family disapproves of portrayal

Then, heirs of Shirley accused filmmakers of not consulting with them prior to its release and of fabricating details, such as his disconnection from his family and from black culture. 

"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. "Many viewers are simply tired of that devaluing narrative."

Mahershala Ali, who stars as Don Shirley, chose his words carefully backstage with reporters after winning a Golden Globe for his performance Jan. 6.

"I spoke to the studio and the family," said Ali. "At the end of the day, you wish everyone was happy and you don't want to offend anyone in any capacity."

Ali won a Golden Globe Award on Jan. 6 for his role as concert pianist Don Shirley in Green Book. (Paul Drinkwater/NBC via Associated Press)

Old tweet, old behaviour re-surface

Director Peter Farelly, known for films such as Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary, was also put on the defensive after a 1998 interview came to light about how he'd prank people on set by flashing his genitals. In the era of #MeToo, it's being seen by some not as a joke, but as misconduct.

"I was an idiot," Farelly said in a statement to The Cut, which first drew attention to the old Newsweek interview. "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."

And the apologies have continued.

Nick Vallelonga, the son of Tony Vallelonga and co-writer of the Green Book script, was criticized for an Islamophobic tweet that resurfaced following his Golden Globe screenplay win. Among those drawing attention to the post was Jordan Horowitz, the La La Land film producer perhaps best known for being the one on stage to tell millions of viewers watching the 2017 Academy Awards that Moonlight had actually won best picture.

In the 2015 tweet, Vallelonga was responding to Donald Trump, saying the then-presidential candidate was "100% correct" that "Muslims in Jersey City" were "cheering" when the World Trade towers went down on 9/11. There has never been any evidence to support the claim — one which Trump had been, nevertheless, touting at a campaign rally. 

Vallelonga said in a statement Thursday: "I will do better."

"I spent my life trying to bring this story of overcoming differences and finding common ground to the screen, and I am incredibly sorry to everyone associated with Green Book," he said. "I especially deeply apologize to the brilliant and kind Mahershala Ali, and all members of the Muslim faith, for the hurt I have caused."

Ali was the first Muslim to win an Oscar for his role in Moonlight.

Vallelonga has since deleted his Twitter account.

Nick Vallelonga (left) and Peter Farrelly (right) of Green Book, seen here accepting their Golden Globe Award for best comedy film, have both been forced to apologize - Vallelonga for a 2015 anti-Muslim tweet and Farrelly, for decades-old behaviour being questioned in the era of #MeToo. (Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

A hit with audiences

Green Book, named after an infamous guidebook for African-Americans to navigate hospitable hotels and restaurants during the era of Jim Crow laws, has increasingly raised questions about race and appropriation while still being enjoyed by a mainstream audience.

The film's TIFF glory showed it was a hit with audiences and primed for Oscar contention. 12 Years A Slave (2013), The King's Speech (2010) and Slumdog Millionnaire (2008) are among the movies which also received the award before going on to win a best picture Oscar. Green Book is scoring highly with audiences too. It has a rating of 94 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes (and an 81 per cent critics' score). The film has grossed over $37 million US at the North American box office to date.

Octavia Spencer, seen here at right starring in period drama The Help, said about her producer role on Green Book: 'I have been a part of four films from this era. And it was the first time that I saw a person of colour with agency.' (Dale Robinette/Disney/Associated Press)

But the emerging narratives surrounding the film come at a crucial time: the window for Academy Award nomination voting started Jan. 7 and ends Jan. 14. The nominations will be announced Jan. 22, with the awards show airing Feb. 24.

"I have been a part of four films from this era," Green Book producer Octavia Spencer, who starred in films such as The Help and Hidden Figures, said after the Golden Globe Awards backstage. "And it was the first time that I saw a person of colour with agency."

"I thought, 'this is a guy I want to know and this is a guy whose story needs to be out there.'"

With files from the Associated Press