'Green Book': Does it deserve the controversy?

2019-03-07 08:49:47CGTN Editor : Gu Liping ECNS App Download
Cover image designed by CGTV's Yin Yating

Cover image designed by CGTV's Yin Yating

The world's full of lonely people afraid to make the first move.

It seems Oscar's controversial Best Picture winner "Green Book" was warmly embraced in China. Judging from the above line from "Tony Lip," a favorite quote among Chinese audiences, it is not difficult to see why it was embraced in the world's most populous country.

Compared to the controversies swirling around it, such as criticism of its being "politically right" or old-fashioned, most Chinese movie-goers were touched by the sensational depiction of the friendship between the main characters and how their personalities gradually changed the other during the trip.

Six days after debuting in China, "Green Book" finally snatched the single-day box office champion on Tuesday with 18.9 million yuan (2.82 million U.S. dollars). Its general box office has exceeded 160 million yuan (23.8 million U.S. dollars), and has already become one of the most successful Oscar-winning films screened in China.


The film is scored 8.9 out of 10 on, China's Rotten-Tomato resembled rating website, and 9.6 on, the country's largest ticket service platform.

What the Chinese love about it

"Green Book" is set in the year 1962, when Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation was still in place in southern parts of the U.S., and traveling in the Deep South could be dangerous for a well-educated and rich black pianist like Don Shirley. Therefore Italian-American nightclub bouncer Frank Anthony Vallelonga, or "Tony Lip" was hired as his chauffeur and bodyguard during a concert tour in the south.

The name of the film "Green Book" is a traveling guidebook written by Victor Hugo Green in the mid-20th century, showing the black people the hotels and restaurants available for them during the segregation era.


Though not so familiar with the historical and cultural background of racism and segregation, the emotions related to bias, misunderstanding, and poor communication resonated with Chinese audiences.

The subtle emotions changing day by day between the two along the trip, the support and understandings that gradually developed between the musician and the driver, the thawing ice in the hearts of both individuals resonated with Chinese movie-goers, who are more accustomed to restrained expressions of love and friendship.

Many in China talked about the scene where the two men are eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in the car, which even triggered a wave of "fried chicken fever" around the country, as many took to social media Sina Weibo, saying that they could not stop themselves from buying the fried chicken after watching the move. The last time the fried chicken fever appeared here could be traced back to 2013, when the nation was crazy about South Korean soap opera "My Love from the Star."

Meanwhile, the performances and chemistry of Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen also added charm to it. Many Chinese audiences said they were amused by the contrast in personalities of the two leading characters.

A controversial winner

Alright, let's not forget about other voices from across the Pacific Ocean.

Though it initially received acclaim when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and has since become a competitive contender during awards season in the U.S., the film has never been removed from controversy.

The phrases and words frequently seen in critics' reviews of the film include "a slick crowd-pleaser", "whitewashing racism" and "white savior perspective".

When it was announced the Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards, "BlacKkKlansman" director Spike Lee did not hide his displeasure at all, saying that the film is not "his cup of tea."

"Everybody somebody's driving somebody, I lose," Lee said, referring to "Driving Miss Daisy," an Oscar Best Picture winner in 1990, which is also about a driver and a passenger, only their places were in reverse.

Critic Justin Chang even called it "the worst best picture winner since ‘Crash'" in his review published on the Los Angeles Times.

And then, there is the problem of being cliché and precise in all the plots. The suspicions, the entertaining and sentimental moments are all too well calculated to bring either laughter or tears.


It is a perfect Hollywood industry product, and every arrangement has its specific position and function. In a review published by the New York Times last November, critic A.O. Scott compared the storyline to a Google map, which has "a little GPS voice in your ear telling you what's up ahead."

Despite not having a profound knowledge of U.S. history, many in China counted on their own experiences and observation to understand discrimination, and saw hope in eliminating it after watching the film.

"Though it's not racism, discrimination does exist almost everywhere, as long as differences exist," a Douban user wrote online. "The differences in skin colors, body shapes, outlooks, clothes, language, wealth and status…they divided the human beings into different races, classes and nations. But still a film like 'Green Book' is trying to convey the universal value of equality."

And there is more.

"Every one would be able to see a wider world after putting down part of the self-obsessiveness. Just like Don Shirley finally played on a non-Steinway piano at Orange Bird, and Tony Lip tried to alter his coarse tones and wording to write a more graceful letter to his wife," another Douban-er commented. "The former freed himself from his restrained emotions, and the latter learned to live with dignity."

The film is probably a little bit of too well trimmed and calculated. But to those who love it, the heart-warming subtlety and the direction it tries to head to, even only expressed in a not-so-satisfactory way, is worth applause.

Because "genius is not enough. It takes courage to change people's hearts."

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