I watched these two films this past week. They share certain similarities. They are both based on actual events and characters. Both films have received praise and were heavily promoted by their respective studios for Academy Awards and succeeded, with The Favourite nominated for ten awards and Olivia Colman winning for Best Actress, while Green Book was nominated for five awards and won three including Best Film, Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor, and for Best Original Screenplay.
My capsule reviews? I found The Favourite to be tedious while I really enjoyed Green Book. The former is based on the palace intrigues surrounding a clueless and ailing Queen Anne at the beginning of the 18th century during one of the never-ending wars that were being fought at that time, while the latter is based on a tour in 1962 of a black concert pianist Don Shirley and his white driver Tony Villalonga who went by the name Tony Lip. The two travelers used the Green Book, a guide for black travelers as to where they could safely travel, eat and stay, in order to navigate that dangerous terrain during the Jim Crow era. Even at the venues where Shirley had been invited to play as the star attraction, he was subjected to indignities such as not being allowed to use the bathrooms that white people used or to eat in the restaurants.
The Green Book was subject to quite heavy criticisms and it is worth looking at why. One criticism is that it was historically inaccurate. But with any feature film based on historical events, there is necessarily some distortion of the facts because the complexities of real life are impossible to accurately capture within a two-hour window. The story of The Favourite is also not historically accurate but that issue was not a serious concern with that film, maybe because the characters are long dead whereas Shirley and Villalonga only died in 2013 and people with actual memories of the events are still around. The real issue is whether the inaccuracies distort the original story in a way that is contrary to the underlying essence.
In Green Book, the contrasts between Shirley (played by Ali) as a highly cultured, multi-lingual aesthete, elitist and even exotic in his rarefied tastes. and Lip as a poorly educated Italian-American nightclub bouncer who at the beginning harbors racist sentiments towards black people, are heavily highlighted and accentuated. The family of Shirley has complained that this story is told from the viewpoint of Lip (played by Viggo Mortensen) and this is undoubtedly true because his son is credited as one of the writers. They have said that Shirley is erroneously portrayed as being completely estranged from his family and his roots in the black community. This charge has some merit since I found it implausible that a musician, even a classical one, would be unaware of the music of Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, given that he lived in New York with its vibrant music scene. Set against this Harry Belafonte, who knew Shirley well, has said that the events recounted in the film correspond to what Shirley told him back then. So the distortions seemed designed to accentuate the contrasts between Shirley and Lip, rather than contradict them.
But one of the most serious complaint by critics is that the film resurrects the ‘white savior’ trope by making the uncouth, muscular, street-smart, fast-talking hustler Lip the protector of the urbane sophisticate Shirley on their travels in the deep south, saving him from attacks by racists including the police, while in return Shirley tries to raise Lip’s sights in terms of language and behavior.
I was aware of and mindful of these considerations while watching the film but wondered how, given the sensitivity of race in the US, a story about a burgeoning friendship in 1962 between two people of different races who were so widely different in pretty much every way could be told without similar criticisms being made. If the roles had been reversed and the driver had been a tough black hustler escorting a white musician as he played in music venues in the black community, couldn’t that also be seen as playing on racist stereotypes?
To me the real test of a film is whether I find the story engaging and whether it makes me care about the fate of the characters. And in this film I found both Shirley and Lip, as well as the growing mutual respect and friendship that develops between them (and in real life lasted the rest of their lives), to not only be plausibly presented but moving. Green Book has been described as a ‘feel good’ film and I definitely felt good after watching it.
Here’s the trailer for Green Book.
By contrast, none of the characters in The Favorite, including the three main ones of Queen Anne and the two women who compete for her favor in a court full of vicious backstabbers, are sympathetic and I found myself not really caring what happened to any of them. When that happens, I become disengaged from a film. It was also not clear what message that the film was trying to convey, perhaps other than that women with power could be as cruel and vindictive and conniving as men. This is not meant to be a criticism of the acting since Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz all turn in good performances. It is just that for a film to engage me, it should have at least one character for whom one hopes things will turn out well and this film did not have any.
Here’s the trailer for The Favourite.