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Will 'Green Book' controversies turn away Oscar voters?

Backlash over depiction of race relations proves that Hollywood is at a crossroads.
Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in \"Green Book.\"
Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in "Green Book."Universal Studios

Despite "Green Book" notching five Academy Award nominations Tuesday and best picture honors at the Producers Guild Awards over the weekend, the tale of the real-life relationship between black pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his Italian-American chauffeur Tony "Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is facing drama of the wrong kind — just as the voting period for the Oscar winners nears.

"Green Book" heads to the Feb. 24 ceremony with nominations for best picture, best original screenplay, best editing, best lead actor (Mortensen) and best supporting actor (Ali).

Critics have largely praised the film, which has momentum coming off the PGA win and Golden Globes for best motion picture/musical or comedy, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actor — an honor that Ali is favored to repeat at the Oscars. Over its first 29 years, the PGA award has correctly presaged the best picture Academy Award winner 21 times.

But those prospects are clouded: Backlash from Shirley's family over the fact they weren't consulted and the resurfacing of a tweet featuring a debunked claim from the screenwriter and a troubling 1998 magazine profile about the director has rewritten the script a month before the envelopes are opened.

"All these stories coming together and coming out during that crucial Oscar voting period could have a pretty significant effect on the chances," said Piya Sinha-Roy, senior movies writer for Entertainment Weekly.

"And if Academy voters are reading those stories, it’s hard to think those headlines are not going to have an impact on their choices."

Detractors already had issues with the film, set during a trip through the segregated South of the '60s, for being antiquated in its portrayal of race, treating Lip, the father of screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, as the type of "white savior" celebrated in films like "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989) and "The Help" (2011).

"It just shows that communication, love and shared experience," Vallelonga told NBC News upon the movie's release, "(it shows) that everyone is the same, and has the same human emotions."

But not everyone had the same emotions about "Green Book": Shirley's own family condemned the film, saying filmmakers never reached out to them for accuracy during the making of the biopic. Nephew Edwin Shirley III told Shadow and Act that the depiction of his uncle, who had marched at Selma and was close friends with Nina Simone, being uncomfortable with his blackness as "just 100% wrong.”

That didn't seem to hurt "Green Book" at the Golden Globes earlier this month, but what a difference a few days makes.

'There’s no real overlap between the Hollywood Foreign Press and the Academy voters (who vote for the Golden Globes and Oscars respectively), but the biggest thing the Globes does is to give certain films and certain talent a specific boost at an important time," said Sinha-Roy. "But because 'Green Book' was given that prominence, in a way it might have done more damage, drawing more attention to these controversies."

Image: 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Show
Brian Currie, Nick Vallelonga and Peter Farrelly of Green Book accept the Best Screenplay Motion Picture award onstage during the 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on Jan. 6, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California.Paul Drinkwater / NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Then just days after accepting his Globe, Vallelonga scrambled to issue a public apology after the resurfacing of a 2015 tweet in which he supported then-candidate Donald Trump's debunked claim that Muslims in Jersey City were seen celebrating at the time of the 9/11 attacks. As NBC News reported in 2016, extensive reviews of television coverage found no footage of Muslims cheering in Jersey City in the wake of the attacks.

Director Peter Farrelly also had to make his own mea culpa that week after a 1998 Newsweek profile reporting that he exposed himself to actress Cameron Diaz as a prank during filming of "There's Something About Mary" returned to the public eye.

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in "Green Book."
Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in "Green Book."Patti Perret / Universal Studios

In the case of "Green Book," it's possible that the furor will die down by the time the week-long Oscars final voting starts on Feb. 12. The real strain on its chances may come down to a generational and demographic divide over film tastes.

The film's old school treatment on race stands in contrast to the other, edgier Oscar best picture nominees, including Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman" and Marvel superhero blockbuster "Black Panther."

"If 'Green Book' was released in 1986, it would probably get nominated and win 10 out of 10 Oscars," said Clayton Davis, who is the editor of Oscars prediction site Awards Circuit. "There’s still a big crowd inside the Academy that loves this type of film."

"With these new members coming in over the past three years as part of the effort to add more diversity to the voting, they don’t respond to the same films that the older members do."

Those new members are part of a five-year initiative by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body behind the Academy Awards, to diversify its ranks. The effort started in response to the #oscarssowhite controversy, when no actors of color were nominated in any of the acting categories at the 2015 and 2016 ceremonies.

"While the Academy membership has increased its diversity and added fresh life to the membership, it is still predominantly an older set of voters, it's still predominantly white male voters," said Sinha-Roy.

"And for a lot of those voters, this is the type of movie that attracts them."