'Green Book': How an Oscar favourite got mired in controversy

Ben Arnold
Contributor
Green Book (Credit: Universal Pictures)

You would struggle to invent what has happened to the biopic movie Green Book (in UK cinemas 1 February).

First of all, its star Viggo Mortensen was lambasted for using the n-word while promoting it, then the family of its subject slated it, calling it ‘hurtful lies’.

That’s been followed by controversy over the film’s writer tweeting that he saw the now-roundly debunked ‘muslims celebrating in New Jersey after 9/11’ and the film’s director apologising for exposing himself to crew as a joke while making movies in the 90s and early 2000s.

For a film that’s expected to be nominated for Oscars, that’s ‘a lot’.

So let’s unpack it.

The film tells the story of jazz legend Don Shirley, and his relationship with Frank Anthony Vallelonga Sr (widely known as Tony Lip), who appeared in The Sopranos as crime boss Carmine Lupertazzi.

As a younger man (and in real life), he worked as a driver for Shirley, and drove him to shows in the early 60s, mostly in the Jim Crow era deep south, during which the pair reputedly became close friends.

(Credit: Universal Pictures)

But even that part – the most pivotal relationship of the film – has been disputed.

The family of Shirley have called out the premise, written by Frank Vallelonga’s son Nick, saying that the two were not close, and that the plot point suggesting Shirley was estranged from his family was ‘hurtful lies’.

Star Mahershala Ali, who plays Shirley, said: “I did the best I could with the material I had.”

He added he was not aware that there were ‘close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character’.


All that came after Viggo Mortensen decided during a press event for the movie in November, that it would be appropriate to use the n-word. He later apologised, saying that ‘my intention was to speak strongly against racism’ and that he was ‘very sorry that I did use the full word last night, and will not utter it again’.

The movie has been directed, and co-written, by Peter Farrelly, best known for 90s and early comedy 2000s movies like Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal, and There’s Something About Mary with his brother Bobby, making a movie with a subject as sober as Green Book’s something of a career rarity.

Peter Farrelly (Credit: Rachel Luna/Getty Images)

But now he’s been dragged into controversy too.

Yesterday, he said sorry after tales of his behaviour on movie sets more than a decade ago resurfaced, with a #MeToo cloud over them.

It emerges – via previously published interviews – that he was known for exposing himself, as a joke, on set.

“True. I was an idiot,” he said in a statement to CNN. “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. I’m deeply sorry.”

But it’s not over yet.

Nick Vallelonga (Credit: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Yesterday, it emerged that writer Nick Vallelonga had tweeted in agreement when Donald Trump claimed to have seen muslims in New Jersey ‘celebrating’ in the streets when planes hit the twin towers on September 11.

Though the claim has been debunked since, he said in a tweet, that’s now been widely re-published: “100% correct. Muslims in Jersey City cheering when towers went down. I saw it, as you did, possibly on local CBS news.”

He’s since said that he’s sorry.

“I want to apologise. 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, having also deleted his Twitter account.

“I especially deeply apologise to the brilliant and kind Mahershala Ali, and all members of the Muslim faith, for the hurt I have caused. I am also sorry to my late father who changed so much from Dr. Shirley’s friendship and I promise this lesson is not lost on me. Green Book is a story about love, acceptance and overcoming barriers, and I will do better.”

Vallelonga received a Golden Globe for his screenplay work on Green Book, the movie scooping three gongs in all on Sunday night.

Just one of these controversies would like scupper an Oscar win, but whether this litany of problematic issues will affect the film’s campaign remains to be seen.

Green Book arrives in U.K. cinemas on 1 February.

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