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How ‘Green Book’s’ Rocky Road Led to the Oscars

It was an oddly slow and idle weeknight, so I took advantage and made my way to the theater to get my entertainment fix. Among the copious selections of films fighting for my attention, I blindly chose one for no apparent reason and crossed my fingers hoping that I would get my money’s worth. Green Book was absolutely a treat that took me on an invigorating trip I never knew I needed.

The Promise of the Premise

Green Book puts a fresh twist on a buddy dramedy that tells the true story of a gifted and affluent African-American classical and jazz musician, Don Shirley, and his tough and witty Italian-American chauffeur, Tony Vallelonga, as they were touring in the Deep South in 1962. The title is based on a book written by Victor Hugo Green called The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook for African-American travelers containing a limited list of motels and restaurants where they are accepted. The premise is about a struggling bouncer from the Bronx, Tony, who is in search for a new employer as the nightclub he works for shuts down for renovations and finds an opportunity to work as a driver for a wealthy pianist who lives in a sophisticated artist unit above Carnegie Hall.

Green Book puts a fresh twist on a buddy dramedy that tells the true story of a gifted and affluent African-American classical and jazz musician, Don Shirley, and his tough and witty Italian-American chauffeur, Tony Vallelonga…

Behind the humorous banters, captivating spectacle and scenic routes is a story that sheds light on pressing issues regarding race, equality, and privilege in the most vicarious, substantial, and compelling way possible. Despite its attempt to vividly paint a picture that gives justice to these matters, it has experienced a number of controversies and received a great deal of backlash, even more so after they bagged the coveted awards for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role at the 91st Academy Awards despite its underwhelming performance at the box office.

Some critics have violently expressed their views based on some of these actualities:

First, the inaccuracies of the facts behind the true events that transpired were brought to light by Don Shirley’s family, particularly his niece who fact-checked some of the events that were portrayed in the film. From the get-go, the entire dynamics between the family and the creatives behind it started on the wrong foot, claiming that they weren’t involved in the pre-production stage nor even had the chance to approve the idea of dramatizing Don Shirley’s story on the big screen.

They felt extremely misrepresented, most especially Don Shirley’s character and friendship with Tony, stating that it was purely professional and was never to the extent of being best buddies. To ease the tension, Mahersala Ali took it upon himself and expressed his regret for not being aware of the existence of Don Shirley’s next of kin whom he could have consulted to get a deeper understanding of his character.

Furthermore, it was a shot to their hearts when the writers portrayed Don Shirley as someone who had an estranged relationship with his family. Not to mention, Nick Vallelonga, the son of Tony and one of the writers responsible for this film, expressed that Don Shirley personally told him before his death in 2013 to keep the development of the film to himself and to specifically include solely the events of his trip with Tony. All he wanted was to honor him and keep his promise.

They felt extremely misrepresented, most especially Don Shirley’s character and friendship with Tony, stating that it was purely professional and was never to the extent of being best buddies.

Consequently, Viggo Mortensen’s inappropriate behavior during a Q&A panel where he publicly uttered a racial slur that sparked rage and disgust. Although his intention was to articulate his revulsion against racism, he apologized for his choice of words and for not taking into consideration the effects of it, especially coming from a white man.

Lastly, the family was enraged because they felt it was culturally inappropriate and inaccurate when they showed Tony teaching him how to eat fried chicken, when in fact, their uncle even knew how to prepare it. They mentioned that their uncle was a noble and respectful man, that it would be extremely unbecoming of him to even think of tossing things out the window as it was shown in the film. To make matters worse, they were taken aback when Don Shirley was seized by law enforcement for soliciting gay sex at a YMCA because they were utterly sure that such a circumstance never happened.

The Road to the Oscars

Green Book’s journey to the top was as daunting and difficult as the selection process of the Academy Awards. The film was never expected to be an Oscar contender, but when it became a crowd-pleaser at the renowned Toronto International Film Festival 2018 (TIFF), it got traction and eventually bagged the People’s Choice Award. However, the front runners behind the film had a different strategy with regard to its distribution, so they took a daring leap by exclusively having it screened domestically only in 25 theaters across 17 cities, hoping that such a set-up would create a buzz through word of mouth. Unfortunately, the risk they took didn’t pay off based on poor ticket sales, but they kept going and expanded the release to 1,000 theaters across the country, through which they fared well but not to the extent of being a box-office hit, let alone an Oscar winner.

While Universal’s distribution strategy was incredibly venturesome, it definitely kept Green Book’s pulse beating up until its recognition on the Oscars stage.

Come December, the decision to expand its distribution started paying off as it generated more word of mouth, which catapulted it to the top of the box office and further expanded its reach to another thousand theaters, just in time for the Oscar nominations.

While Universal’s distribution strategy was incredibly venturesome, it definitely kept Green Book’s pulse beating up until its recognition on the Oscars stage. It eventually found its rightful place among audiences with the same penchant as the voting members of the Academy. Notwithstanding its controversies, Green Book took us on an electrifying adventure that made us dance to the beat, laugh our hearts out, and go places in the comfort of our seats, and that in itself are the reasons why it deserved its triple threat award.

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