Wow, Viggo Mortensen continues to be really problematic about ‘Green Book’

The 87th Annual Oscars - Red Carpet Arrivals

I shouldn’t be surprised that in the year 2019, Hollywood is still giving awards and major nominations to extremely problematic films. Green Book was supposed to be the kind of film that Hollywood loves: a historical, somewhat biographical film centered on a childlike understanding on racism and race relations in the early 1960s. I thought that when Viggo Mortensen bungled the promotion so badly, that would be the end of the Oscar campaign. But no – apparently, Viggo saying the n-word wasn’t a dealbreaker for the National Board of Review, the Hollywood Foreign Press or the SAGs, all of whom gave awards or nominations to Green Book, Viggo and/or Mahershala Ali.

I saw Green Book over the holidays, because I had an aha-moment that Hollywood really is that dumb, and of course they would give a lot of awards to it. It is, to me, this year’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in that it says really stupid sh-t about race and it’s utterly problematic. Add to that, the writer and director of Green Book had no problem using Don Shirley’s real name and life for their story about how a white racist dude is a hero for being friendly with a famous jazz pianist. Don Shirley’s family took issue with the film’s portrayal of Shirley, and they were quite vocal about it in November and December. No one from the film said much about it then. But Viggo, Mahershala and director Peter Farrelly were in Palm Springs for the film festival, and woo, boy, did they have some sh-t to say.

“Green Book” star Viggo Mortensen has spoken out in defense of the film after family members of Dr. Don Shirley criticized its portrayal of the classical pianist.

“[Writer] Nick Vallelonga has shown admirable restraint in the face of some accusations and some claims – including from a couple of family members – that have been unjustified, uncorroborated and basically unfair, that have been countered by other people who knew Doc Shirley well,” Mortenson told Variety‘s Marc Malkin at the Palm Springs Film Festival awards gala Thursday. “There is evidence that there was not the connection that [the family members] claimed there was with him, and perhaps there’s some resentment.”

Previously, Dr. Shirley’s nephew, Edwin Shirley III, and brother, Maurice Shirley openly criticized the film in an interview with Shadow And Act, calling its portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley a “Symphony of Lies.” Additionally, the family members questioned the relationship between the film’s two main characters Tony Lip (Mortensen) and Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), calling it “an employer-employee relationship.”

On the carpet, director Peter Farrelly also defended the film, pointing to the importance of Dr. Don Shirley’s friends in the creation of the film.

“I’m very disappointed by that. I wish they were, and they have a right to their opinion, but when we went down that road, we looked into the heirs of Don Shirley, and unfortunately it wasn’t the family. The heirs were friends,” Farrelly told Variety. “When we found out about the family, we tried to embrace them, and they’re not having it right now, and it’s very disappointing.”

“I don’t think it would have changed the movie at all,” Farrelly continued, “This is a movie about a two month period in these men’s lives. It’s not about him and his family. It really isn’t.”

[From Variety]

What struck me about the film is that it would have worked so much better if they had just made Mahershala Ali play a fictionalized jazz pianist loosely based on Don Shirley – I think the trouble was that this is Don Shirley’s first portrayal in a Hollywood film, and it’s in a supporting role to the white, racist hero’s character arc. If they wanted to make a movie about how a white dude is redeemed by his friendship with a jazz musician, just fictionalize the story and don’t use real names. But yeah, these comments from Viggo and Peter Farrelly are NOT GOOD. They’re basically talking over Don Shirley’s relatives to say that they, the white guys, have a better understanding of Don Shirley’s life. SMH.

30th Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala

30th Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala

Photos courtesy of WENN, Green Book.

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38 Responses to “Wow, Viggo Mortensen continues to be really problematic about ‘Green Book’”

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  1. drea says:

    They aren’t allowed to disagree with the family? It’s automatically “problematic?”

    • Kateeee says:

      I think it’s one thing to defend your work, and another thing to try and discredit the opposing voices. These guys could’ve just said “We trust our writer and his research process, but obviously you can never know everything about a person. This is the work we produced with the information we found and we are proud of it.” Much easier than trying to dispute who knew Don Shirley best.

      • drea says:

        I disagree. Sometimes you need to defend and discredit when others are intending to discredit you.

      • osito says:

        @Kateeee — Can you be the apology writer for all celebrities for the rest of time? That was an excellent apology/defense. And it’s probably closer to the truth than anything Viggo (god rest my crush) or Peter Farrelly has said up to now on the matter.

      • Meganbot2000 says:

        I don’t think you can assume the people he shared DNA with knew him best.

      • Knitter says:

        @ Kateeee, Very well written!

        I, too, found the responses by Viggo and Peter Farrelly problematic, but I couldn’t articulate why. You’ve articulated the essential problem here of discrediting the voices of the family and you’ve provided a great example of a way Viggo and Peter Farrelly could have defended their work without doing that.

        Even though we don’t know the details of the relationship between Don Shirley and his relatives, we do know that his relatives are speaking from a position of having experienced the racism that pervades American society, and we need to listen when they say that this picture tells “a white man’s version of a black man’s life”. It’s insulting and arrogant to dismiss their views as uninformed simply because taking them seriously would have inconvenienced the telling of the “white saviour” narrative.

  2. Lala11_7 says:

    I’m not gonna trip…

    You don’t leave anything to your “family”…but you leave it all to the “family you choose aka friends”…that tells me a lot about the “family”…

    Though I will say this…the framing of the movie is quite bad…pretty lazy…and unacceptable at this stage of the game….

    • Stumpycorgi says:

      Totally agree. Unacceptable. But whatever the deal is with the family… To me, the bottom line is that Hollywood appropriated the life and work of a person of color (even using his name), as the backdrop for a white guy’s personal growth journey. Again. We don’t know for sure what really happened with these guys, but Hollywood still decided to force the story into a classic racist trope. It’s your typical movie for white people to go see and be reminded that racism existed in *the past* (even though it still exists, alive and well), and to pat themselves on the back for acknowledging that, and being “better” than “the past.” Like white people have come so far, and it’s so noble for them to acknowledge that. Hell, they are so woke they paid to see a movie about it! (Insert major eye roll here).

      As soon as I saw the trailer a while back, I was like HELL NO because this sh*t is so predictable.

      I’d love to watch a documentary or read a peer-reviewed scholarly biography or autobiography about an important historical figure. Not a fictional mess like this. I refuse to see “historical” Hollywood movies for this reason. IMO, fiction and nonfiction should not be mixed up like this. The masses don’t understand that the difference, and all kinds of BS radiates from there.

  3. Jamie says:

    This controversy reminds me of the one over the movie Wind Talkers, about the Navajo Code Talkers from WWII. The movie was more about the white guys who were assigned to protect the code talkers (lead by Nicholas Cage) than the Navajos themselves.
    I guess Hollywood believes every movie needs a white savior.

  4. Amelie says:

    Honestly we’ll never know the truth since Don and Tony have both passed away. I think this is also a “he said-she said” thing. Nick Vallelonga, Tony Vallelonga’s son, is one of the co-writers of the movie and says most of the source material came from his own father and Don Shirley himself who he considered as an extended family member. According to Nick, the only reason the movie was made now was because Don asked him to wait until he was no longer living to make it. That could be complete BS but we’ll never know since Don isn’t around to confirm it.

    Don Shirley’s family says the portrayal is not authentic and their claims might be valid. But again, the only person I would want to hear from is Don who would confirm whether he was close to his own family and considered Tony an employee. Unfortunately we’ll never get to know his side of the story.

  5. xdanix says:

    Didn’t he also, like a week after his “apology”, publicly say he regretted apologising or he shouldn’t have had to apologise, something along those lines? I can’t remember exactly what he said, but he definitely said something like that. Ugh. Just go AWAY, Viggo. Or at least stop TALKING. (Whoever is in charge of this film’s awards campaign must have SUCH a headache by this point. Every second or third time he opens his mouth he seems to make their job harder!)

  6. Miles says:

    Serious question. Why is Greenbook (and even Vice) an awards contender? I looked at their critics scores and audience scores and there are a bunch of films released this year with better scores across the board so I’m confused as to why either of these films are in the running.

    *And yea I know critics scores doesnt mean anything when it comes to awards but it’s one of the first things people look at when a film gets released to see if it will be an awards contender.

    • Kitten says:

      Why was 2004’s Crash an awards contender? Why was 2011’s The Help a contender? Both had even lower critic scores than Green Book.

      Answer: Because Hollywood f*cking LOVES white savior trope. Crash was one of the most cringe-worthy, tone-deaf movies I’ve ever seen in my life and people at the time were talking about it like it was a revelation. That was 14 effin years ago and nothing has changed.

      This is one of many reasons why we need more diversity in Hollywood: telling stories through a white lens is not only frustrating, it is inaccurate and it is one-sided.

    • ravynrobyn says:

      I saw “Vice” yesterday (to see my bff, Steve Carell🤩) and…meh? Film was thought-provoking, brash, had flashes of brillance but ultimately didn’t pull together enough to have a concise narrative. Entertaining, yes,but I felt Adam McKay spent too much time throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck.

      Veering OT-as for Award noms, Christian Bale was MAGNIFICENT as DC. This was the very first time that he absolutely disappeared into a role; I kept having to remind myself that DC was not onscreen. Amy Adams was also fantastic.

      BUT…are their performances the only reason for the other noms and expected Oscar nominations? Cause the movie wasn’t great!

      I used to believe each actor’s portrayal should stand on its own, regardless of whether or not the movie fulfills its promise, vision, etc. I still believe that, but if “Vice” is only getting other nominations because of CB’s virtuoso performance, is that right? Especially if other more deserving people/films are excluded?

      Veering even FURTHER OT (please indulge me, lol) I MUST SAY that Steve Carell’s performance in “Welcome To Marwen” was…subtle, sublime, soulful…SIGH. I actually forgot it was him, which I thought would be impossible. Because most critics see this film as a disaster, I know he doesn’t have a chance in hell of being nominated and it’s going to be a tough field with a lot of strong contenders (and I think CB deserves to win and will win)…but shouldn’t he at least have a chance to be nominated even if the movie is a shit show?

      “FUN” FACT! “Marwen” was supposed to come out in November, but because the studio had high hopes for “Green Book”, they focused on that and pushed “Marwen” to drop 12/22, which certainly didn’t help its prospects.

      Please, don’t let Viggo Mortensen get nominated for an Oscar Best Actor, please anybody else..

  7. K-Peace says:

    Yeah, I disagree with Kaiser here. I’m going to assume that the makers of the movie thoroughly researched Don Shirley’s life, and so they probably feel that they have a pretty good grip on what happened in his life. And given that Dr. Shirley himself chose to leave his own family members out of his will and left everything to friends, then i think that does indeed show that either Dr. Shirley wasn’t at all close with his family members and/or that he had some problems with them. So when the filmmakers point this out, I don’t think it has anything to do with race in this instance. And, what if these family members happen to be total as*holes and the filmmakers are aware of that? (Not saying that’s the case, just that it’s a possibility.) They’re allowed to give their opinion and defend the film that they worked hard to make!

  8. Veronica S. says:

    What wait – the Shirley’s character ISN’T the protagonist?? Who the hell thought that would be a good idea in this political climate oh my god.

  9. Rise above says:

    I’m not racist but- I’m going to whitesplain. Nothing good ever comes after that especially with white fragility and privilege that is so deeply ingrained and intact, constantly enabled, admired and applauded that there is no self examination and definitely no room for any criticism coming from anyone who has actually experienced bigotry. Going on the defensive is a great way to silence voices instead of engaging in a conversation with an open mind so that you may learn from someone else’s perspective. I guess it’s just easier to push your privileged narrative than having an uncomfortable conversation which inconveniently shines a light on everything wrong with society back then and how little has really changed with deep seated racism still at work now.

    • WaterisLife says:

      What you say is true, but it’s never a good idea to start a sentence with “I’m not a racist but…”

      • Kitten says:

        I could be wrong but I think OP was describing how so many white people issue “I’m not a racist but” as a caveat that they believe will absolve them from accountability before they go on to say something that is indeed very racist. I think you actually supported her point without knowing it. 🙂

        Great comment, Rise Above.

      • WaterisLife says:

        “I think you actually supported her point without knowing it.” So much for understanding irony.

      • Kitten says:


        Clever O_O

    • MariaS says:

      Thank you. It’s disgusting how quick people on the this thread are to (1) jump to the filmmakers’ defense and discount the family’s narrative; and (2) not understand how infuriating it is to have the white, racist character be the film’s protagonist. AGAIN.

    • horseandhound says:

      what does white privilege even mean to you people? if people say a white person can’t know how it is to be black, then how do black people know how it is to be white? why do you assume every white person is privileged? there are many black people with money and connections and many white people who have nothing. also, everybody can be discriminated against. you may wear glasses and be bullied at school, you may be gay, you may be shy, you may be poor,etc. nobody can convince me that to be black is to be a victim and to be white is to live without problems.

      • Knitter says:

        @horseandhound, No one has said that “to be black is to be a victim and to be white is to live without problems” and no one is trying to convince you of that. And the debate here isn’t even about white privilege in general–it’s about the specific example of discrediting black voices when telling the stories of black experiences, and it’s about using black experiences as foils for telling stories about heroic white saviours.

      • Bkittyb says:

        Every white person is privileged. It isn’t about financial status. It is about the social and institutional and personal ways that white people have benefitted just from being white. You don’t have to be rich or famous to have it. It’s about viewpoint, and the ability to ignore and be tone deaf to other experiences that are not white-centered. I am not trying to be mean, but white privilege goes far beyond the surface examples you mentioned. It goes to the core of why this movie is problematic and why posters defending it are tone deaf. It goes to the agency of everyone to stand up on behalf of themselves with their own experiences and be respected as such.

      • Sparkly says:

        If you do some research on privilege, you’ll have a much better understanding of it than you seem to have now. There are a lot of really great articles out there that explain it in understandable ways.

  10. Natalia says:

    It seems to me that Don Shirley’s family is trying to save face.

  11. WaterisLife says:

    Thank for all the whitesplaining.

  12. Valiantly Varnished says:

    This thread makes my head hurt. It reminds me so much of what it’s like being one of only a few black people in a given room listening to white people talk about race and race politics as if their opinions somehow trump the experiences of the POC around them. So now the Shirley family is being discredited because they had the audacity to speak up for their family member who had no say in how he was portrayed? And why was this movie even made? Why are we STILL telling black people’s stories through the eyes of white people??

    • WaterisLife says:

      Exactly. As I was reading this thread I couldn’t shake the thought that nothing will change until POC are given the right to be heard and not have to sit quietly and respectfully while white people tell us how to think and feel. The book was written by a white man, the movie was made by white men, Viggo is white…I’m seeing a pattern here but please, tell me and all the other people sitting in the back of the room how we should feel about and understand this situation (which is no different than almost every situation in popular movies).

      I’ll wait.

    • NewKay says:

      @valiantlyvanished – I agree with you. The whitesplainong of this whole post is prom legatos and I don’t have the energy to educate. At this point, believe that you want. Greenbook is a problematic film. Ali even called the family to apologize – but gwan then- defend it. Hollywood is insane and racist to the core. The fact that they thought this story from this perspective would be a good idea. Ugh

    • Bkittyb says:

      Exactly. It’s exhausting, and the posters cannot even see it. But this is whiteness and how it works, especially in Hollywood. The white perspective always trumps anything else. This is why power dynamics matter. This is why stories have to keep being told from all viewpoints, awards or not. I am disgusted by the tone-deaf comments here, as I usually am. There’s an obtuseness and thickness to it that is spilling over with self-righteousness and privilege.

  13. another someone says:

    agree with @Lala11_7 and @K-Peace. I think this is similar to the markle family drama. if the man himself dissociated from his family and chose his friends as his heirs, its pretty obvious who the man was really close to.

  14. greyate says:

    Fitting anecdote: My cousin texts me to go see Green Book and bring my daughter. My girl who has NO interest in this movie whatsoever. Why would she go? Because she is black. My cousin always does this and it annoys me no end. If she sees a movie about African Americans, read a book, etc., then my girl “must see it” “Must read it”. Finally, after the Green Book comment, I said to her, “Why would I bring her? just because she is black? Isn’t that the reason you mention my girl?”

    After sputtering a bit, my cousin did admit that was a PARTIAL reason. heh.

    Since this is all meant in good faith, I never really get too upset, but it bothers me, always has always will.

    I totally get the annoyance with this movie. I don’t know if anyone saw, The HAte U Give. IT was the BEST movie all year. I haven’t see it up for any awards. And I know FOR SURE, that movie would have shocked and educated my cousin FAR more than Green Book did. The Green Book movies of the world are here to make the whites feel better about their liberalness, While The HAte U Give, is ALL about how unfair and complicated and messy the world is right now for people of color.

  15. Kath says:

    Viggo voted for Jill Stein and was so inarticulate about doing so that whatever stirring in my loins I might have had for him died right then. This is just the nail in the coffin for my regard for Viggo.

    Also, can we stop with the “white guy learns not to be racist” movies? It’s 2019 FFS. If Hollywood still feels the need to make films to teach us “black people are people too”, then this whole planet needs a reset button.