Back in September, Green Book won the audience award at TIFF. This set it up as an Oscar front-runner, and it seemed like an inevitable Best Picture nominee. It’s a middle-of-the-road movie about race made to make white people feel good, a la Driving Miss Daisy, The Blind Side, and The Help. We’ve seen movies like this get nominated for and win Oscars before. But Green Book has had a surprisingly tumultuous week. It won Best Film from the National Board of Review, but it also bombed at the box office. So it’s not out of the race yet, but it’s not a foregone conclusion, either.
It’s not a bad movie, per se, featuring great acting from Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, but it’s got the wrong protagonist—it should be about Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), not his driver (Mortensen)—and is told by Peter Farrelly in a thoroughly common way. Only the acting keeps Green Book from being completely mediocre and while it is exactly the kind of engineered crowd-pleaser the Academy loves, this is a strange year to celebrate a film made by a white dude about race. 2018 has been a strong year for black American cinema, and against films like If Beale Street Could Talk, BlacKkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, Black Panther, and Widows, Green Book looks more than a little out of place—it looks retrograde. Which is maybe why audiences aren’t terribly interested in it. It’s got an A+ CinemaScore, so the people who see it LOVE it, it’s just that not many people are actually into seeing it. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that means audiences now recognize when the wrong person is telling the story.
Green Book is just competent enough to stay in the game, though, bolstered by that pair of strong central performances. The NBR win erases some of the sting of box office failure, though the fact that it is bombing is not a great narrative for award season. It’s on a see-saw, its assumed popular support wounded by its poor box office. It went into wide release over the US Thanksgiving weekend, so it’s not like there is a platform from which to build. It’s already out there, it just remains to be seen if it crashes completely or if it develops enough legs to sustain it. Support from critics’ groups over the next few weeks wouldn’t hurt, building momentum and providing some headlines other than those about box office. Because if the narrative becomes about its disappointing performance and/or a backlash, Green Book could go the way of First Man.
For now, though, the backlash against Green Book remains latent, although Viggo Mortensen is doing his best to make it explicit. But there is definitely a feeling of maybe not this film, maybe not this year. With all the other options on the table—stories better told, more authentically told—maybe this isn’t the year to recognize yet another movie about a time a racist became slightly less racist.