GREEN BOOK Review: A Pleasant But Outdated Perspective
Throughout the early-to-mid-twentieth century, segregation in America made travel inherently difficult and dangerous for the small portion of African-American population that were able to do so. Most restaurants and hotels barred any black people from being patrons, and certain towns in the deep south further banned them from merely being in town after dark. To help with this task, an annual guidebook called The Negro Motorist Green Book was published beginning in 1936, specifically listing all the establishments by state that were friendly to people of color.
One of these books is handed to Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), aka Tony Lip, near the start of Green Book. The year is 1962, and Tony, a tough guy from the Bronx known for dealing with difficult situations with friendly conversation and, if that doesn’t work, violence, has just been hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) across the country. Shirley, a black man, is a renowned pianist and musician, and he is embarking on a concert tour across the midwest and the deep south. As Tony frankly remarks during his interview, “There’s gonna be problems.”
One of those problems, at least at the beginning of the journey, include Tony’s own ingrained racism. Though he emphatically states that he doesn’t have a problem working for a black man, he still maintains certain negative ideas about people of color on the whole. An early scene has Tony throwing away the two glasses used by the colored repairmen hired to work on his kitchen floor, likely due to stereotypes of uncleanliness. His employment by Dr. Shirley, and their eventual friendship, promises to shatter even more misconceptions.
The reverse-Driving Miss Daisy set-up resembles that Best Picture winner in more ways than its plot. Directing solo for the first time, and for a dramatic narrative no less, Peter Farrelly constructs a familiar, nostalgic vision of the ‘50s/’60s that feels like a warm blanket until the period’s inherent, overt racism rears its head for the umpteenth time. The emergence of the ugliness is rarely jarring, the film shifting gently back into lightness each time it happens. Also having a hand in the scripting, Farrelly injects an easy-going tone to the banter between Tony and Dr. Shirley that’s often hokey, but just as often charming and funny. That balance has just as much to thank from the performances, with Mortensen and Ali both doing their best to inject humanity into their characters as they work out their relationship and Tony grows into his awareness of the African-American experience. Whereas Dr. Shirley actively defies stereotypes at every moment, Tony constantly threatens to dive headlong into Italian mafia-esque caricature, and its a credit to the performer that it goes right up to that line without tipping over.
Brian Hayes Currie &
The trajectory of the film is obvious from the jump, with Tony acting as an audience surrogate through which to confront a racist past. And it is here where Green Book‘s problems become more apparent. From the beginning, the film is deliberately rooted in Tony’s perspective. A good twenty minutes is spent with him before meeting Dr. Shirley, establishing his character, career, and family life. We get a perfectly clear picture of who Tony is, from his loving tight-knit Italian family to his sweet-talking schmoozing and no-BS penchant for pummeling guys who deserve it. While his racism is not presented as positive, it is considered as merely ignorance that must be corrected and is easily forgiven, by both his new boss and the movie.
The script is much less generous to Dr. Shirley, who possesses an inner life only because of whatever Ali brought to the role. Clearly intelligent and sophisticated in a way that has made him arrogant and self-important, Dr. Shirley spends much of the movie as a stubborn scold with no personal life to speak of. He has his moments of kindness and warmth, but mostly he has to learn to loosen up and warm to Tony’s charms. The film also levels a potentially dangerous and condescending charge that Dr. Shirley is too divorced from his own identity as a black man; he apparently doesn’t know popular black music like Little Richard and Aretha Franklin and has never eaten fried chicken. A late scene spells it out for the folks in the back, as Tony remarks “I’m blacker than you!” (Yikes.) An angry Dr. Shirley shouts at Tony, “If I’m not black enough and I’m not white enought, then…what am I?”
The imbalance and optics of the narrative is difficult to ignore, and it can likely be credited to the contributions the real-life Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga, made to the script. Tony’s lovingly constructed portrayal and characterization as a big talker makes it clear that he told stories about his trip with Dr. Shirley to his sons, and Green Book is likely culled from those memories. No such representative for Dr. Shirley’s perspective was present on the film’s production, which is strange for a film that asserts that these men remained life-long friends. Just one family member to speak for him in the writing would’ve made for a much richer film, and one whose vision of racism in America would be less skewed.
None of this makes Green Book an inherently bad movie. The film is remarkably pleasant and good-hearted in a way that makes it difficult to dislike. However, the narrative’s construction raises important questions regarding whose story this was to tell and for what purpose, and I don’t think Tony Vallelonga was the right perspective to serve as this film’s entry point. The trip clearly had an impact, and it’s good that he outgrew some of his prejudices due to the experience. But enough movies have catered to a white perspective and repackaged black stories as fundamentally basic teachable moments to unlearn racism. In a remarkable bit of symmetry, the Green Book from which the film draws its title was made specifically for black people, though Tony is the only one that uses it, a tool for his own learning and reference in the context of the film. A better film that involved those othered perspectives which are the real-life subjects of what the movie is addressing would’ve been aware of this phenomenon and done more to lift it up.
Green Book is currently playing in theaters everywhere.