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Film Review: Green Book

Green Book (2018; Directed by Peter Farrelly)

There stands Green Book, the Best Picture of 2018, at least according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Embraced by audiences since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and generally approved by critics, Green Book was not without its controversies, particular as regards its treatment of race. Still, the film was considered a safe consensus pick for Best Picture in a cinematic year featuring more challenging films on the African-American experience like fellow Best Picture nominees Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman (to say nothing of less-seen but more confrontational indies like The Hate U Give, Sorry to Bother You, and Blindspotting).

Green Book is a gentle, good-natured, old-fashioned race relations parable about a mismatched odd couple learning to look beyond not only skin colour but also divergences in class, education, and personal comportment to glimpse a common humanity and mutual appreciation and friendship. It’s 1962, and Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a working-class Italian-American from the Bronx, a bouncer at the exclusive Copacabana nightclub in New York City. In need of income to support his family (including his wife Dolores, played by Linda Cardellini) due to a closure of the Copa for renovations, the brusque, bullshit-talking, big-appetited Tony Lip takes a job as a chauffeur and personal assistant to the prim, meticulous, and brilliant acclaimed pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on a record-company-arranged concert tour of the Midwest and Deep South.

In driving Dr. Shirley from gig to gig and protecting him from the segregationist laws and practices of the South, Tony Lip learns to overcome culturally-ingrained prejudices (an early scene sees him throw away glasses that African-American workmen has drunk from after fixing the floor in his home) and respect his employer as a man of genius and decency. Shirley also helps Tony open up emotionally, helping him to write florid and poetic letters of adoration to his wife during his two-month absence from home. In return, Tony earns the respect of the refined but detached Shirley by connecting him with the earthy culture of America and especially of his “own people” (meaning African-Americans lower down the socioeconomic ladder), introducing the world-renowned classically-trained pianist to the simple joys of fried chicken, Little Richard, and sweaty backwoods juke joints.

This is very much the sort of screen story about the problems of race in America that square, white, wealthy, liberal Hollywood has long preferred to tell and to celebrate itself for telling. These sorts of films tend to involve prejudices and bigotry overcome by gradually accruing respect built through sustained personal interaction, where social and political norms of racial segregation and discrimination are not challenged but worked around, not so much overcome as wisely ignored in a process of personal moral and emotional betterment. They are also very often period pieces (though not always; witness Paul Haggis’ contemporary drama Crash, a Best Picture winner whose very title is a curse word in cinephile circles) which quite explicitly locate the most virulent and shockingly open displays of racism in a past that is also, incongruously, given a patina of nostalgic romanticism. If the worst of that racism can also be geographically confined to the South while sparing the guilty consciences of the richer cosmopolitan cities of the North, so much the better.

Following the beknighted model for this sort of political message film, Stanley Kramer’s 1967 Oscar-nominated Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the type of race-relations film that Green Book represents always operates on the same core assumptions: racism, while unfortunate and really just rude, is immutable (and even, problematically, natural) as well as being foundational to America’s society, economy, and institutions; lamentable though it is, racism ought not be toppled with direct order-disrupting action (which would probably work but might prove messy and costly, as it did during the Civil Rights Movement), it can be worn down if only white Americans and black Americans can break bread together and truly see each other as people; the difficult effort of this journey to anti-racism is to be borne by whites and blacks alike and equally, with neither “side” of the racial divide requiring serious material sacrifice to reach a more enlightened relationship with the other. Racial inequality, in this formulation, resides first and foremost in our hearts and minds, and those can always be changed and redeemed.

This model of addressing racial inequity has a generational vector, and as displayed in a tense confrontation between incremental Klansman-converting musician Daryl Davis and a millenial Black Lives Matter activist strongly prioritizing collective action in the 2016 documentary Accidental Courtesy, younger generations of African-Americans (and their non-black political allies) often reject its efficacy and even characterize it as racist in itself, no matter the good intentions of their elders in disseminating it. Likewise, Green Book‘s embrace by the Academy members, who of course skew older and whiter, makes sense in these terms; ironically, older generations who either lived through or grew up closer to the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, one of the 20th Century’s classic examples of radical social and political change being effected through direct protest action and civil disobedience, are less amenable to similar contemporary movements than are younger generations born well after their 1960s model happened. Shirley tells Tony at one point that violence solves nothing, and that maintaining dignity is the better path, a nice-sounding Boomerist misreading of the historical lessons of the Civil Rights Movement if there ever was one. Green Book‘s is even an understandable narrative and thematic approach in terms of filmmaking to render stories about the racial divide on the personal level, to appeal to audience sentiment, to emotionalize and particularize the experience of racial discrimination and thus make it more intelligible to people (namely the better-off white audiences who tend to consume smaller prestige dramas) who will never be subject to it firsthand.

None of this is to say that Green Book, which stars one of Hollywood’s most prominent African-American actors (Ali won his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Shirley) and is exec-produced by another (Octavia Spencer, also an Oscar winner), is racist, nor that not saying that it is racist means that it is unproblematically and laudably anti-racist either. Green Book desires in its heart to embody the non-judgemental shrug Tony gives to Shirley after eeking the latter out of a compromising same-sex interracial rendezvous in a Georgia YMCA: “I know it’s a complicated world,” he tells his employer. But it’s a broad film that presupposes a whole host of stereotypes, especially about its deeply-characterized leads. This follows, as its director, Peter Farrelly, comes from comedy, and Green Book is fundamentally a bromantic comedy of the sort he made with his brother Bobby for a couple of decades, with some notable successes (and the most famous semen joke in American film history) behind him.

In bromance archetype terms, Mortensen’s Tony Lip is the crude proletarian slob prone to violent outbursts and tacky habits, with Ali’s Shirley as the buttoned-up high-culture snob who needs to loosen up and live a little. If Green Book offers any transgression of its dominant race-relations drama tropes, it’s that these men help each other along to improvement on the lines of inverted racial stereotypes: Shirley teaches Tony to be more “white” (polite and mannered, properly dressed and well-spoken, expressive of his romantic emotions) and Tony teaches Shirley to be more “black” (fried chicken, Little Richard, and juke joints).

Unfortunately, to whatever extent this might be the case, it’s an obnoxiously offensive formulation, and Shirley’s family in particular took issue with the way the man was portrayed in the film. The rosy patina surrounding Tony Lip’s encroaching wokeness (he goes from trading racial slurs with unctuous Italian-American relations at the film’s beginning to shutting such slurs down in the final scene) and the extent to which Shirley’s character shifts almost from scene to scene depending on what feeling the movie requires him to compel at any given time might be traced down to the screenplay, originally the work of Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony Lip, along with Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie. So many of Green Book‘s problems stem from the paternal hagiographic tone of a cherished family yarn combined with latent reactionary leanings suggested by the younger Vallelonga’s 2015 tweeted agreement with Donald Trump’s vile fabricated slur about witnessing thousands of Muslims celebrating the destruction of 9/11 from nearby rooftops.

Both actors are wonderful in these roles, with a chemistry that is easy and heartfelt once it is gradually earned. It certainly doesn’t hurt their likability and therefore that of the film that they have two of the great smiles in current cinema: Mortensen’s impish happy-goblin leer, and Ali’s a panoply of nuance in its slighter iterations before breaking into a grand glowing grin like a full-glory sunrise. We want to see these men smile as they do in the satisfying, if saccharine, emotional finale, and only a complete churlish troll would be able to resist smiling with them. Does Green Book believe in its bones that centuries of racism and its social, economic, and political consequences can be chased away by a sunny smile like so many dark clouds? If it doesn’t believe that, it chooses to conclude on a note that suggests it does, or else that mere men can do no more.

Green Book‘s title comes from The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual guidebook for African-American travellers published from 1936 to 1966 that was known as “the bible of black travel during Jim Crow”. Originally published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green, it listed hotels, motels, filling stations, restaurants, and other establishments across the United States (and especially in the segregationist South) that were friendly to black travellers, as well as pointing out “sundown towns” and other places where a black person might be subject to summary arrest or otherwise might not be safe due to discriminatory local laws and practices. Tony is given a Green Book for reference upon leaving Shirley’s apartment above Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, and intermittently consults it during their tour of the South.

Green Book is an entirely fitting title for this film in a manner that its creators almost certainly did not intend or foresee. The Green Book was a pragmatic consumerist response to a monolithically unjust system. Faced with injustice that could not be challenged without risking legal or mortal peril, the Green Book offered those living under the yoke of oppression a practical coping tool, a travel guide for circumventing the worst threats of that unjust system. As a film about race in America, Green Book is also impotent in the face of racial injustice and therefore offers only a tool for coping with it, a roadmap to safe harbours of comforting emotions and microcosmic happy endings. A motorists’ guidebook can’t change the world, but can movies do so? Hollywood’s sense of artistic and political self-worth is greatly tied up in the shared belief that they can. But the roadmap for changing the world, especially when it comes to America’s still-active racial inequality, has been updated and re-routed (Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a direct subversion of seminal race-relations classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, is perhaps the defining example of this course correction). Green Book is a movie making the usual safe stops but always skirting around the core problem.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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