After getting off to a strong start at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Green Book has been a formidable contender at this year’s Oscars. It won three Golden Globes, including for Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy, and has received major nominations by other groups, including the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America.
But since debuting in September, Green Book has become mired in controversy centered around the veracity of the story the film depicts, as well as past and present gaffes by the director, producers, and the lead actor, Viggo Mortensen.
The film, set in 1962, depicts black piano prodigy Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) hiring an Italian assistant and chauffeur named Tony Vallelonga (Mortensen) to accompany him on a concert tour through the South. Green Book gets its title from the real-life motorist guide used by black travelers to avoid certain locations prone to racial conflict, or threats of violence and discrimination.
Green Book now heads into the final stretch of the Oscar campaign saddled with a series of scandals. Here’s a timeline marking the key moments:
Sept. 8, 2018: Viggo Mortensen uses the n-word in a post-screening Q&A
At a post-screening Q&A for Green Book in Los Angeles, actor Viggo Mortensen said, “People don’t say ‘nigger’ anymore,” which reportedly took all the air out of the room.
Mortensen, who was seated next to costar Mahershala Ali, later clarified that the point he had been trying to make was that “many people casually used the n-word at the time in which the movie’s story takes place.” Still, he released an apology the next day.
“I do not use the word in private or in public,” he said. “I am very sorry that I did use the full word last night, and will not utter it again.”
Ali released a statement two days later, saying however “well-intended or intellectual” the conversation may have been, “it wasn’t appropriate for Viggo to say the n-word.”
He added that Mortensen “has made it clear to me that he’s aware of this, and apologized profusely immediately following the Q&A with Elvis Mitchell.”
Nov. 21, 2018: The Shirley family denounces the film
Calling into NPR’s 1A Movie Club, Shirley’s youngest and last living brother, Maurice Shirley, as well as his niece Carol Shirley Kimble, insisted Green Book is “full of lies.”
Kimble went on to add that the film, cowritten by Tony Vallelonga’s son Nick Vallelonga, was “once again a depiction of a white man’s version of a black man’s life. ... To depict him and take away from him and make the story about a hero of a white man for this incredibly accomplished black man is insulting, at best.”
As surviving members of Shirley’s family continued to dispute details from the film, such as Tony Vallelonga introducing Shirley to fried chicken and to Little Richard’s music, writers Nick Vallelonga and Peter Farrelly shifted their narrative from the film being historically accurate to being entirely true from the perspective of Tony Vallelonga, whom Nick had audio tapes of that were used to write the screenplay.
Dec. 14, 2018: Mahershala Ali apologizes to the Shirley family for his role in the film
In December, more members of the Shirley family, including Don Shirley’s nephew Edwin Shirley III, spoke to Shadow and Act and reiterated just how far from the truth Green Book was in their eyes.
While the film depicts Shirley as being cut off from both his family and the black community as a whole, his family noted his close friendships with Martin Luther King Jr. and contemporary black musicians like Nina Simone. They also pointed out that he was the best man at his brother’s wedding two years after the events in the film.
The Shirleys also say that the exact day their concerns about the film were aired on NPR, Maurice and Edwin Shirley received a phone call from Mahershala Ali, who apologized.
“If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry,” the family said the actor told them. “I did the best I could with the material I had. I was not aware that there were close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character.”
Jan. 6, 2019: Green Book wins three Golden Globes
Green Book took home three Golden Globes in January, for Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy; Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor; and Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, and Peter Farrelly for Best Screenplay.
But the optics of Farrelly giving a long speech about race relations in America on a stage with majority white men, for a film its black subject’s family disavows, sparked criticism.
Jan. 7, 2019: Peter Farrelly apologizes for having flashed his penis in the workplace years earlier
Shortly after the Golden Globes, the Cut resurfaced Green Book director Peter Farrelly’s history of flashing his penis in the workplace.
In a 1998 Newsweek story, There’s Something About Mary star Cameron Diaz is quoted as having been one of the people flashed.
“When a director shows you his penis the first time you meet him, you’ve got to recognize the creative genius,” she said.
Farrelly later confirmed Diaz’s anecdote in a 1998 Observer interview, saying, “Of course! That’s what got her in.”
While he previously brushed his actions off as a joke, Farrelly released a statement the same day the Cut story was published apologizing for his actions.
“True. I was an idiot. ... I did this decades ago and I thought I was being funny and the truth is I’m embarrassed and it makes me cringe now,” he said. “I’m deeply sorry.”
Jan. 7, 2019: An anti-Muslim conspiracy tweet by screenwriter Nick Vallelonga resurfaces
The same day director Peter Farrelly apologized for flashing his penis, his Green Book cowriter, Nick Vallelonga — the real-life son of the character Viggo Mortensen depicts in the movie — was also forced to answer for his past. The issue was a 2015 tweet in which he agreed with then–presidential candidate Donald Trump that there was footage on 9/11 of New Jersey Muslims celebrating the terrorist attack, saying he had seen it too.
At the time, Trump was perpetuating the conspiracy theory, which there has never been any evidence for to corroborate. The tweet hit especially hard given that Green Book costar Mahershala Ali is Muslim.
When BuzzFeed News first reached out to Nick Vallelonga about the tweet, the Twitter account had been deleted and he had no comment. The next day, however, he released a statement apologizing.
“I especially deeply apologize to the brilliant and kind Mahershala Ali, and all members of the Muslim faith, for the hurt I have caused,” he said. “I am also sorry to my late father who changed so much from Dr. Shirley’s friendship and I promise this lesson is not lost on me. Green Book is a story about love, acceptance and overcoming barriers, and I will do better.”
Green Book won three Golden Globes on Jan. 6, 2019. An earlier version of this post misstated the year.