Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
Director: Peter Farrelly
Writers: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly
In the grand scheme of things, Green Book isn’t that bad of a film. It’s well acted, the structure and direction are competent and it ably transmits an appealingly heartwarming and humorous tone that would make it a rather pleasurable watch if not for, well… the rest of the film. Even its outdated, grossly misinformed views on racism wouldn’t be so infuriating if the film hadn’t been as lauded as it was, the final insult being its Oscar victory. Comparisons were made with the 1990 ceremony where Driving Miss Daisy won the top prize while Do the Right Thing went largely ignored. The former offered audiences a heartwarming tale of racial reconciliation and assured them that the racism of the pre-Civil Rights era was a thing of the past. The latter was Spike Lee’s scorching treatise on how racism had continued to be a potent, destructive force in the world which bleakly concluded that there were no simple solutions to its divisive, institutional problems. Why the Academy, a body whose membership has historically been dominated by white, middle-aged men, were more receptive to the movie that offered the more comforting take is obvious. That this same body were so moved by this film’s presentation on racial harmony in a year that saw Black Panther and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman as Best Picture contenders (funny how history repeats itself) shows that, in the last three decades, not a lot of time has gone by.
Directed by Peter Farrelly with a screenplay he co-wrote with Nick Vallelonga, the protagonist’s real-life son, Green Book is a film “inspired by a true friendship” between Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Tony (knows as Tony Lip to his friends because of how much he loves to run his mouth) is an Italian-American bouncer working at the Copacabana nightclub. In the twenty or so minutes before we meet his co-star, the film follows Tony around and teaches us a few things about him and his life. Tony, we learn, is pretty good at his job and can pack a punch when needed but that he’s also not above earning cash through less legitimate means and socialising with some of the local mob guys. He lives with his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) in their Bronx apartment and wakes up one morning to find that half his in-laws have dropped in to watch the game on their TV, just happening to be there at the same time as two coloured plumbers who have come round to fix the sink. Dolores offers each workman a glass of water, after which Tony decides that there’s nothing to be done with the used glasses except that they be thrown into the trash. Thus we’re treated to our first instance of casual racism from the film’s protagonist, a man who is apt to refer to blacks as “eggplants” when conversing in Italian with his friends.
By this point Tony’s club has shut down for renovations and the guy is in need of some steady work for the next few months. He learns that there’s some doctor in need of a driver and so we are introduced to Dr. Donald Shirley, the famed, black pianist. Dressed in his embroidered tunic and seated on an ornate throne amongst his African artefacts, it is immediately clear that he is an impressive, cultured and wealthy man living an upper-class life and presenting himself to the world as an exemplar of elegance. His speech is formal, his poise is graceful and his taste is refined. Don reveals to Tony that he is set to embark on an eight-week concert tour through the Deep South (this is in 1962 when Jim Crow laws were still in effect) and that he needs a driver/bodyguard to safeguard his passage. As well as driving his car and dealing with trouble, Don needs somebody who can take care of his itinerary, launder his clothes and shine his shoes. “I ain’t no butler” objects Tony in his fuhgeddaboudit Italian accent. Tony has no problem driving a black man around Kentucky, Georgia and South Carolina but, even when he needs the work, carrying the bags and shining the shoes of such a man is beneath him. Still, he accepts the job in the end and so off they go on what will prove to be a life-changing road trip for the both of them.
The film very much wants the friendship that develops between Tony and Don to be the heart of its story, which means that the mismatched duo need to enjoy a certain rapport through which they can find common ground and bond. Thus the film adopts a centrist standpoint whereby it treats the two parties as if the prejudice between them is equitable and that both of them have flaws that need to be overcome. Tony is racist (but luckily not as racist as those intolerant Southerners who won’t allow Don to try on a suit or dine in the venue hosting him) and he is also uncouth, vulgar and ignorant. The film therefore determines that Tony must be taught some manners by Don because it thinks the key to bettering him as a man is not to challenge his bigotry in ways that might turn the audience against him but to instead teach him to be less overt in his racism. Don meanwhile, as a black man who was classically trained as a pianist, has two honorary doctorates and is able to speak eight different languages fluently, is stuck-up, which is the film’s way of saying that he is too ‘white’. According to this film, Don has divorced himself from his cultural roots by being too accomplished and sophisticated and it is up to Tony to teach him about what the movie thinks black culture really is (i.e. Little Richard and fried chicken).
The premise of their journey together is that Tony and Don are supposed to clash over their differing values and backgrounds, sometimes in comical Odd Couple ways and sometimes in soberly dramatic ways, and their shared lessons and experiences lead them to develop a friendship founded on mutual respect. This is depicted almost entirely from Tony’s perspective because its his story that the film is interested in telling. We learn next to nothing about Don’s personal life excepted that he is estranged from his family (a claim that the real Don Shirley’s family have since disputed) and, when the film does follow him for any extended period of time, it’s to set up some kind of trouble that Tony needs to rescue him from. In order for this film to revel in its White Saviour complex, it has to turn Civil Rights activist Don Shirley into an idiot who somehow doesn’t understand the dangers of being a black man in the South despite hiring Tony for that very reason. He leaves his segregated hotel in order to get drunk at a bar and is accosted there by three white meatheads whom Tony deals with by threatening to shoot them with the gun he may or may not be packing. Even worse is the scene where the homosexual Don is caught having sex with a white man in public because a whole lifetime of being a closeted person of colour still hasn’t taught him to exercise greater restraint and caution when travelling in a part of the country where people like him have been lynched for less.
There are moments where it seems like Green Book might actually confront the contemporary realities of racism, including one where a cop pulls their car over. The officer demands to see Don’s licence even though it’s plain to see that he is the passenger and Tony’s protests are met with umbrage. Tony thus makes this bad situation worse by punching the cop and, despite clearly doing nothing wrong, Don gets arrested along with his hothead driver. This presents the film with a golden opportunity to delve into the issue of how the police discriminate against people of colour and their complicity in enforcing unjust laws, but that’s not what Green Book does. Instead the cop is revealed to be a bad apple who abused his authority beyond his legal duty to the displeasure of his precinct. This is because the film operates under the false assumption that racism is individual rather than institutional and is born more out of ignorance than it is from systemic injustice and imbalances in power. This is why Tony’s friendship with Don is presented as such a resounding victory for the both of them in the way that it is, because Green Book believes that the answer to racism is simply for black and white people to learn to understand each other and get along.
The movie’s culminating moment is when Don, frustrated with being treated as an outsider by both the white community he affably performs for and the black community that apparently doesn’t accept him, laments in the rain “If I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough and if I’m not man enough, then tell me Tony, what am I?” This is the film’s ultimate declaration that both sides are really the problem and that the solution is the kind of middle ground neutrality that poses no threat to the status quo. It is one of the most patronising scenes in the film and Mahershala Ali, who very nearly sells it, deserves better. As does Don Shirley for that matter. The way that the film portrays Don as being isolated from his African-American heritage is not only false (this is a man who followed Martin Luther King Jr. to Selma and marched by his side), it’s also actively harmful to the very perception of black culture. The film suggests that black people have more in common with the racist Italian driver than they do with the college-educated musician because they could never see Dr. Shirley as someone to be admired, someone the black community could be proud of for his accomplishments and someone they could aspire to be like. The idea that Shirley was an outcast trying to make himself more amenable to the white community by performing for their richest patrons is frankly insulting to his role, along with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Little Richard, in building the bridge that allowed other black artists to find success.
Green Book is a film that, whether through design or otherwise, appeals itself to white liberals and conservatives who want to feel ‘woke’ without being made to confront any prejudices they might hold or question any privileges they might benefit from. It presents this historically false narrative of how racial harmony overcame the inequalities and injustices of the past to create the enlightened future we live in today, an idea that can only possibly ring true if you think of housing discrimination, inadequate education, inequitable employment, mass incarceration, and endemic police shootings as ‘enlightened’. It does so through a quaint, comforting lens that assures its viewers of their own amiability. I’ll admit that the film can be pretty funny if you’re wont to find its brand of humour to your taste (I recall one gentleman in the same row as me who was so amused by the fried chicken scene that he applauded). The film was after all directed by a filmmaker who specialises in comedies and he found that by leaning on Tony’s buffoonish antics and Don’s dry wittiness, he could make the film more upbeat and therefore more appealing to those in search of a light-hearted and uplifting feel-good film. While I don’t begrudge anybody for wanting to watch that kind of film, what Green Book offers is the same old regressive, outdated fantasy about a serious, infinitely complex problem that continues to plague the world today and nothing about that is reassuring to me.