‘Green Book’, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and Why It’s Important Who Tells Your Story

     January 7, 2019

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It won’t be surprising if both Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody earn Best Picture nominations. Green Book has been a crowd pleaser that has won over various critics’ groups while Bohemian Rhapsody has been a juggernaut with audiences by earning $180 million domestic and $635 million worldwide, picked up a SAG nomination for Best Ensemble, and won Best Motion Picture – Drama at the Golden Globes. Both films prominently feature a prodigiously talented musician and both films shortchange these individuals by virtue of who ended up telling these stories. It’s said that “History is written by the winners,” but as these two movies show, it’s written by those holding the pen.

In the case of Green Book, the story focuses on the “friendship” between musician Dr. Donald Waldridge Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his coarse driver Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). It’s not difficult to see why the film is appealing. It presents the viewpoint that someone racist like Vallelonga can change if he personally interacts with an exceptional black person like Shirley, and that Shirley could also be richer for the experience by interacting with a gregarious everyman like Vallelonga. It’s a nice message (although, as I’ve argued, it’s a message that comes at the expense of harder lessons), that I’m sure was well-intentioned by writers Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son who based the film off his dad’s stories), Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly (who also directed the film).

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Image via Universal Pictures

But as a terrific feature in Shadow and Act points out, none of these writers bothered to get input from Shirley’s family, who strongly counter many aspects of the film as false. Reading the article and hearing from Shirley’s family, the problems of Green Book become even clearer. The film is crafted in such a way as to make Shirley seem like a genius (which he was), but to temper that genius with aloofness, drunkenness, and closeted homosexuality. The movie needs to “bring him down” so to speak, so while he may be one of the best musicians in the country, he also needs to be alone to contrast against the popular, extroverted Vallelonga.

However, Shirley was a real person, and this is likely the first time most audiences will be aware of his music or his life. While movies are allowed to take dramatic license, it appears Green Book seriously crossed a line by simply cutting out Shirley’s side of the story and rendering it in the viewpoint of Vallelonga. That makes Shirley less of a person and more of an object in the Tony Vallelonga Redemption Story.

Bohemian Rhapsody suffers from a similar problem in its depiction of Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek). Like Green Book, Mercury is a musical genius and the film makes sure that his genius gets its recognition. But because Mercury passed away from complications due to AIDS in 1991, the telling of his story is largely left to his fellow Queen band members Brian May and Roger Taylor, who served as executive producers on the movie and also held the rights to Queen’s music. In the film, Mercury is a genius, but also consumed by fame and his homosexual lifestyle. His homosexuality is downplayed in favor of his relationship with girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), and his biggest homosexual relationship, which is largely sexless, is with the film’s antagonist Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). Mercury is also saddled with the responsibility of breaking up Queen to pursue a solo career (although the band never broke up) and then must humble himself before a reunion at Live Aid.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

In Bohemian Rhapsody, Mercury is the film’s hero and also its victim. He’s the protagonist and the one with a dramatic arc, but that arc also appears to be a criticism of Mercury. The film wants us to believe that for a rock band, Mercury was the only one who partied hard, and that led him to be lonely and manipulated by an evil gay man. If he had only been responsible like his fellow Queen members, then who’s to say how history would have gone. But it’s a movie that feels no compunction over blaming Mercury for a breakup of the band that never happened, and it’s disheartening that May and Taylor would be fine with throwing Mercury under the bus like that.

Movies are not obligated to be 100% accurate. They’re not textbooks and they’re not historical biographies. They’re allowed to take dramatic license. However, that dramatic license should also be questioned when it comes at the expense of certain characters and their actions, especially when those characters are meant to be presented in a heroic light. To be blunt, no one cares about the stories of Tony Vallelonga, Brian May, and Roger Taylor. They are supporting characters in the lives of accomplished musicians Dr. Donald Shirley and Freddie Mercury, whose talents were undeniable. But because Shirley and Mercury are no longer with us, they have now been repurposed by those who survived them, and while their respective movies may claim to celebrate these individuals, they actually diminish their legacies with easily exposed dishonesty.

Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody aren’t simply fudging some dates or combining people for narrative efficacy. They’re using Shirley and Mercury for the glory of other characters. For Tony Vallelonga, he gets to be the guy who was a white savior to Shirley, saving him from both beatings (for the “sin” of being black) and from the police (for the “sin” of being gay) while also providing friendship to a lonely genius. For May and Taylor, they get to make sure we all know they also contributed to Queen and that they were gracious enough to accept Mercury back into the band and accept his AIDS diagnosis even though he didn’t break up the band and didn’t learn he had AIDS until after the band’s iconic Live Aid performance.

When we look at movies based on true events, we have to ask ourselves, “Who benefits?” On the surface, Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody may present themselves as celebrations of everyone involved where the tribulations lead to a triumph for all the good characters. But even a slightly closer look reveals that the truth has been twisted in such a way as to diminish and simplify people who deserved better representation just so that some supporting players can look better in the end.

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