OWhen Green Book won top prize at the Toronto Film Festival in September, it instantly became an Oscar favorite. Three weeks before the ceremony, his chances remain strong: most bookmakers currently make him the second favorite to win the best picture, after Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. This, despite several PR disasters, including star Viggo Mortensen uttering the N-word, stories resurfacing of director Peter Farrelly exposing himself, and a fuss over a 2015 tweet from co-writer Nick Vallelonga about Muslims. Americans applauding the September 11 attacks. But arguably none of these did as much damage as the charge of twisting history.
Green Book tells the story of African-American piano virtuoso Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his Italian-American driver Tony Vallelonga (Mortensen) as they embark on a tour of the Deep South in 1962. Along the way, Shirley is denied service in stores, banned from restaurants and physically assaulted. Initially, Vallelonga is hostile to blacks. When he gets to know Shirley, however, and sees southern Jim Crow up close, his sense of justice outweighs his prejudice. Simultaneously, Shirley is portrayed from the start as a stuck up, prissy snob, out of touch with her own African American community. Forced to spend time with the scoundrel, salt of the land Vallelonga, he relaxes. In a climactic scene, Vallelonga tricks Shirley into eating fried chicken for the first time.
Green Book is a film designed to warm the hulls of a liberal white audience who wants to feel good about not being racist. However, Shirley’s real family reacted with pain and anger, saying there was no close friendship between the two and criticizing the filmmakers for not consulting with them. The film, said Shirley’s surviving brother is “a symphony of lies”. Its emphasis on a white protagonist’s perspective at the expense of its black persona plays into a long-running controversy over representation in Hollywood. In this stormy political context, the historical fictionalization of Green Book reads for some not as an artistic licence, but as an erasure.
The only historical Oscar contenders this year that haven’t drawn widespread accusations of inaccuracy are Roma and the Cold War. Both are semi-autobiographical: one way not to upset someone else’s family is to make a movie about your own. Everything else got a kick. “I have never seen a film twist its facts in such a punitive way,” wrote Bohemian Rhapsody critic Mike Ryan. Historian Fred Kaplan judge that Vice’s historical orientation amounted to “what VI Lenin denounced as ‘infantile leftism'”. Director Boots Riley critical Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman: “It’s a made-up story in which the wrong parts [sic] trying to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racist oppression.
Simon Schama lamented the fictional encounter between Elizabeth I and her cousin in Mary Queen of Scots, tweeting that “all the drama of Elizabeth and Mary was that they never met – the movie fell apart on that”. In a preemptive strike, Hannah Greig, historical adviser to The Favorite, admitted that Queen Anne didn’t actually keep 17 rabbits in her room, stating that rabbits “were a foodstuff and a pest of the early 18th century”. donald trump attack First Man for not showing the exact moment Neil Armstrong planted the American flag on the moon.
In this newspaper, Simon Jenkins railed against Vice, The Favorite and Mary Queen of Scots, asking why, at a time when there is so much anxiety about fake news, “instant fake history” is rewarded. “The Favorite director Yorgos Lanthimos offhandedly remarked that ‘some of the things in the movie are accurate and a lot are not,'” Jenkins wrote. “What would a student of history think of that?” » Gavin Whenman Script Reader retort“How about they do real historical research, rather than watching a movie that doesn’t pretend to be a documentary? Yet there are more substantial questions around the public use and understanding of history. Does historical fiction alter our sense of reality? Do filmmakers have a responsibility to history? How can we navigate a world where real and fake information is often mixed together?
Almost 30 years ago, many historians were concerned about the fabrications in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) that constituted a conspiracy behind the murder of John F Kennedy. Between 1963 and 2001, Gallup pollsters monitoring the percentage of Americans who believed Lee Harvey Oswald acted as part of a conspiracy, rather than as a lone killer. Statistics show that the film had little impact. In 1983, 74% believed in a conspiracy; after the film was released in 1992, it jumped to 77%; by 1993 it was down to 75%. There was a much larger jump between 1966, when only 50% believed in a conspiracy, and 1976, when 81% believed in it. It was probably the result of the controversial House Select Committee on Assassinations, which in 1976 decided that there had been a conspiracy, without knowing which one. The most serious historians believe that Oswald acted alone. They may be worried that a majority of Americans might disagree, but those Americans seem to have been much more influenced by politicians than filmmakers.
Stone’s film had an effect. In 1992, Congress responded by ordering that all remaining documents relating to the assassination be released by 2017. Ninety-nine percent are now available, and nothing in those documents has provided proof of a conspiracy. In 2017, the number of Americans who believe in a conspiracy had fallen to 61%. Again, this shift seems more attributable to politicians and historians than filmmakers.
When considering whether filmmakers have a responsibility to history, it is difficult to consistently define what is acceptable artistic license or not. There has been relatively little criticism of La Favorite, despite great liberties. As an anarchic comedy, it is perhaps less likely to be taken seriously than a drama. Yet Green Book is also a comedy. The outrage may be stronger not because the inaccuracies are necessarily more extreme, but because the recent history of racism in the United States is far more familiar and painful territory for many than the antics of the Stuart court.
There have been attempts in some countries to impose legal limits on how filmmakers deal with the story. The Indian Central Board of Film Certification has took into consideration screening films with a historical element to selected historians, and letting them censor accordingly. Obviously, that would be an imposition on freedoms of speech and expression – as well as costly, time-consuming and patronizing. If a government says the public is too sleazy to be allowed to watch a historical film unsupervised, many will consider that to be an intolerable move towards a “nanny state”.
Moreover, it seems unfair to force filmmakers to obey historians when historians often disagree with each other. Experts are divided on whether Mary Queen of Scots should have a Scottish accent, as Saoirse Ronan does in the film, or whether she would have sounded French. This can’t be settled permanently without a time machine. Even if we had one, we might find that 16andthe Scottish and French accents of the last century were different from those we recognize, and that the familiar speech patterns of modern English were nothing like modern film dialogue either.
If we can’t establish clear rules about what constitutes acceptable historical fiction, and if we don’t want our governments to set up bureaucracies to enforce them, we are left with where we are today. The filmmakers will make all the historic films they can get. Some care deeply about history and feel responsible for it, but they are paid by studios and investors to do work that is not that of a historian. If we want filmmakers to prioritize story or art over commerce, they need more public funding. As things stand, films are generally commercial products. It is up to us to choose what we watch and how we react.
So how do we navigate through this flurry of real and made-up information? It starts at school: it is vital that the humanities, including history, are not neglected, as they teach the process of critical thinking. Fiction, satire, disinformation, propaganda and “fake news” have been with us for millennia, and they are here to stay. If we learn to think critically as individuals and as societies, we can make better judgments and decisions. We cannot just survive complexity, but embrace it.
Perhaps those who care about fiction are looking at the wrong end of the telescope. As Greg Jenner, historical adviser to Horrible Histories, tweeted this week: “As long as historians are able to respond publicly (which we are doing en masse), these films are helpful, not a hindrance, in stimulating public fascination with the past.” It’s understandable that Shirley’s family is upset about Green Book. But the film sparked much discussion about the politics of race and class in film, and renewed interest in the real Shirley, a fascinating man of extraordinary talent.
This does not absolve the filmmakers of all responsibility. They should also be critical thinkers and expect criticism. But the public does not absorb everything without thinking. They are able to understand fiction and discuss it. Whether you love or hate Green Book, or any of the other Oscar contenders, historical films can be viewed not as a threat to history, but as an opportunity to engage audiences. Even the most inaccurate film can raise questions, spark debate, sharpen our capacity for evaluation and analysis. These skills are essential not only for understanding history, but for understanding the world we live in today.
Green Book is in general distribution