Green Book

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 Even its outdated, grossly misinformed views on racism wouldn’t be so infuriating if the film hadn’t been as lauded as it was, the final insult being its Oscar victory.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.

★★

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Moonlight

Cast: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali

Director: Barry Jenkins

Writer: Barry Jenkins


Moonlight is such a complex and conceptual film that I hardly know how to even begin describing it. To say that this is a coming-of-age story about the life of a gay, black, working-class boy barely even scratches the surface. On a broader level the film is about what it means to be black and gay in America today and depicts such socially relevant issues as drug abuse, incarceration and schoolboy violence, but to call this movie a comment on the world we live in undermines the personal and artistic elements at work. In many ways this movie is more about the mood and tone and the individual moments that play out in the successive chapters. It is a character study, a social commentary, and an abstract exploration of art and emotion. The film is a beautiful, intimate personal tale telling the real-life story of a young man’s struggle for identity and it is also a visual poem, spoken through light, music, and expressions. It is all of those things and more and is without question one of the best films of 2016.

Told in three chapters, each entitled with his given name at the time, Moonlight tells the story of a poor, sexually conflicted African-American boy living in Florida with Paula (Naomie Harris), his drug addicted mother. First we see him as Little (Alex Hibbert), a withdrawn ten-year-old getting picked on by bullies. It is at this age that he befriends Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, and his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monáe), who provide him with advice and comfort to help him navigate through his turbulent life. In the second chapter he is Chiron (Ashton Sanders), an introverted teenager whose abuse at the hands of the bullies has become more unbearable and violent. His childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a cocky womaniser, is his greatest source of comfort at this time but is also a source of emotional and sexual confusion for him. Finally, as a young adult in chapter three, we see him as Black (Trevante Rhodes), a bulked up drug dealer living in Atlanta. Having seemingly left his past behind him, a phone call from a grown-up Kevin (André Holland) brings it all flooding back.

The defining theme of Moonlight seems to me to be identity. Throughout his childhood, adolescence and adulthood, Chiron is trying to figure out his place in the world and is tormented by conflicting ideas of sexuality and masculinity. As a kid, before he’s even old enough to understand the concept of homosexuality, the other boys sense something ‘different’ and ‘soft’ about him and punish him for it. As a teenager, as his confused desires start to manifest themselves, the bullying intensifies. Although Chiron is able to explore his sexuality in one of the film’s most delicate scenes, he is still at a vulnerable age where he lacks the support or the confidence to accept the way he is. Thus, when he is later taught in the harshest, most brutal way that the way he feels is contrary to what a man is ‘supposed’ to be, it’s a lesson he takes to heart. The next time we see him, his fear, rage, and self-loathing, have driven him to shape himself into the supposed archetype of African-American masculinity. He is a macho, physically dominant, violent man who has suppressed the part of himself that defies what he has been taught represents manhood.

Equally painful and agonising is his complicated relationship with his abusive, drug-addicted mother. As her addiction grows and her desperation increases, so does her son’s suffering increase. The drug trade in this area is controlled by Juan and Paula is one of his best customers. So when Juan starts to look out for Chiron, inviting him over for meals, teaching him valuable skills and lessons, and just spending time with him, their bond is sullied by the awareness that Juan is partly to blame for Chiron’s wretched home life. To view Juan as simply a surrogate-father is to simplify his character. He is a well-meaning man who sees something good in Chiron and wants to help him, but he is also a questionable role model whose influence and relationship with the young boy has as much of a toxic affect on Chiron (not only as evidenced by his mother but also by Chiron’s career as an adult) as much as a comforting one. This is only one of the ways in which Jenkins is able to bring humanity to a character and challenge what could very easily have been a stereotype

The story with its characters is fascinating and compelling enough, but the poetry of it all comes from the artistry Jenkins brings. Through sensual camera movements, rich and radiant colours and a subtle yet expressive score, the film creates a breathtaking, dream-like atmosphere. The chapters thus feel less like narratives and more like evocations, justifying the time-jumping structure the film adopts. The screenplay as well is marvellous, both in what it says and leaves unsaid. This is aided by the astounding performances provided by the ensemble, from Ali’s strong charisma to Harris’ desolate naturalism to the wonderfully expressive turns by each of the actors playing Chiron. As a character Chiron is shy, quiet, and unassuming, so it is a testament to Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes that we get such a comprehensive picture of his inner-turmoil. Whether it’s the knowing gaze of a child who finally understands the relationship between his mother and his father-figure, the nervous glance between two young men who feel an undeniable yet taboo attraction between them, and most of all in the final scenes, the film is filled with silences that speak volumes.

There is so much to say about Moonlight and I have no doubt it is a film that will be studied for decades to come. Moonlight is a landmark in both LGBTQ and racial cinema and yet its themes are so universal and so resonant that any attempt to categorise it would prove inadequate. The film is just too challenging and open-ended. Moonlight is simply a great film, one of the true masterpieces of the 21st century. It is a film of profound pain and sadness but also of beauty and affection. By the end, after years of pain, torment and suffering, Chiron finally attains a greater understanding of himself and of the world and may very well have found a future of hope and freedom. Moonlight is an utterly heartrending, moving film that provides a thoughtful, mesmerising window into Chiron’s very soul and consciousness. Watching his growth, progress and struggle is a deeply poignant and heartbreaking experience that only the finest, most ingenious works of art can create.

★★★★★

Hidden Figures

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell

Director: Theodore Melfi

Writer: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi


One of the main messages driving this film, the message alluded to in the movie’s title, is how behind every great story in history are a dozen smaller stories we never hear about. Whether they’ve been overshadowed by the larger narrative, side-lined due to the prejudices of the time, or just plain forgotten, these are the stories that remain hidden in the past, waiting to be rediscovered. All too often these forgotten stories are those that involve historically marginalised groups such as women and people of colour (in this case both!). However impressive or significant these stories can be, it can take a long time for them to attain the publicity and recognition they deserve. Cinema is a great tool to bring these stories into the spotlight and Hidden Figures has a great one to tell. It concerns a division of NASA made up of African-American women whose efforts contributed towards what is arguably mankind’s single greatest 20th century achievement, the Moon Landing.

The film focuses on three women in particular who worked on the Mercury 7 mission in 1961 that allowed John Glenn (Glen Powell) to become the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), an exceptional mathematician, is assigned to the Space Task Group directed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costenr) as a computer. She is met with derision by her white male colleagues, most notably Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), and finds her job to be nearly impossible under the Segregationist conditions she must follow. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), an aspiring engineer, finds that she must attend night classes at an all-white school in order to obtain her degree and must therefore go to court to get permission. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) oversees the coloured women’s sector at NASA in an unofficial capacity with the responsibility of a supervisor but not the recognition or salary. When her boss Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) condescendingly denies her appeal for a promotion, Dorothy directs her efforts towards making her girls crucial to NASA’s mission.

In American history there are two particular social causes that made significant strides over the course of the 20th century: feminism and civil rights. This movie focuses on both and what it does very well is illustrate what a tremendous uphill battle these ladies had to fight on both fronts. While NASA was pragmatic enough to understand that they need to use every resource at their disposal if they want to beat the Russians to the moon, they weren’t progressive enough to extend the same rights and respect to the ‘coloured computers’ as to their white colleagues. Upon being reassigned to a department where she is the only person of colour, Katherine discovers that there are no bathrooms in the building that will accommodate her, leading her to take exhaustingly lengthy detours just so she can relieve herself. While some of the race and gender discrimination displayed can be somewhat simplistic (Parsons character is particularly cartoonish in his derision), the film does a good job of establishing the systemic and institutional nature of these inequities, calling out the white men and women who may not have necessarily advocated segregation but who also did nothing to combat or protest it. One scene I especially liked was when Vivian insists to Dorothy that her harsh attitude is not because she’s prejudiced, to wish Dorothy replies “I know. I know you probably believe that”.

Henson, Monáe and Spencer are the stars of the show and each one of them shines. As Katherine, Henson portrays both the determination and frustration of someone who’s just trying to do their job and is being punished for it at every turn. This climaxes beautifully in Henson’s majestic outburst where she delivers an enraged monologue to her callous co-workers and Costner’s reasonable but preoccupied boss, about the unjust bathroom situation. Henson can be fiery and passionate like nobody’s business and this is one of her finest moments. Monáe excels as the glamorous, self-confident Mary whose charming yet assertive petition to the judge is one of the movie’s most memorable and satisfying moments. Spencer’s Dorothy has perhaps the biggest burden to bear as she must stand up not only for herself but for all the women under her supervision. Fortunately she is as astute as she is capable and when she realises that the newly installed IBM computer will make her division obsolete, she set outs to make her girls indispensible by learning before anyone else how the machine actually works.

Although the movie can be simplistic and a little too on-the-nose at times, that can be forgiven in a film as crowd-pleasing as this. The film takes its subject seriously but injects some humour as well, allowing for a playful, upbeat tone that saves this movie from being as preachy or as sombre as it could’ve been. This isn’t a movie that simply sets out to let us know that discrimination is bad, nor does it present a revisionist narrative that dares to paint racism and sexism as relics of the past that don’t exist in modern society anymore. Hidden Figures is a tale of empowerment about three strong, courageous women who challenged a system that was rigged against them and achieved their own personal triumphs. Their victories may have gone unsung for too long and the inequalities they battled may be very much still around, but that’s exactly what makes films like these so important and so satisfying. Hidden Figures is well-written, well-acted, and well worth watching.

★★★★