Green Book (2018)
Inspired by a True Friendship
New York City, 1962, hard-edge bouncer Frank ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is fresh out of a job when the nightclub he works at temporarily shuts down for renovations. On the strength of his references, Frank is offered a gig to work as a de facto bodyguard and chauffeur for acclaimed jazz pianist Doctor Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), where he’ll drive him around for a two-month tour of the Mid-West/ Deep South. Here’s the kicker, though — Shirley’s a black man and the Cotton States are still intensely bigoted towards non-whites.
Tony himself, an Italian-American, feels uncomfortable around other ethnicities, sometimes struggling to understand other accents and forms of dress. His wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), also an Italian-American, is a bit more open-minded and can’t fathom her hubby surviving the trip without offending his upper-crust boss.
Desperate for cash, in agreement with Dolores, Tony leaves his wife and children and life in the Bronx for the eight-week tour and is given a Green Book by Don’s record company, a guide for black travelers to find motels, restaurants, and gas stations that’ll serve African-Americans. Along the way, despite their contrasting lifestyles and very different personalities, an unlikely bond forms between the two men.
First up, let’s tackle the elephant in the room — the classic Oscar-bait scenario. In the current social climate, still conscious of the #OscarsSoWhite debate from 2015, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we’d find ourselves with an influx of black-centric stories from major Hollywood studios. Green Book is just one of many, with other titles such as If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) and The Hate U Give (2018) hitting Australian theatres soon, and the film world truly shaken up by the number of Oscar nominations for Marvel’s superhero hit Black Panther (2018), including Best Picture, which is unprecedented for the genre.
One of the key differences here with Green Book is its white director in Peter Farrelly. Yep, one half of the infamous comedy duo The Farrelly Brothers who gave us such in-your-face and decidedly politically incorrect comedies such as Shallow Hal (2001), Dumb and Dumber (1994) and Me, Myself & Irene (2000), the latter featuring Jim Carrey who had three black sons and several crass jokes on the subject.
Besides being a rather deliberate change of direction for co-writer/ director Peter Farrelly (well, outside of his beloved road trip scenario), Green Book could almost be read as a sympathetic apology to African-Americans with Frank acting as a proxy for Farrelly, who’s clearly changed and evolved. For those on the more extreme side of social issues, this film may not be angry enough to further the cause of acceptance/ standing up for racism, these folk preferring grittier fare such as the excellent, but exhausting Detroit (2017) or the somewhat subversive Spike Lee joint BlacKkKlansman (2018); however, I’d argue these people are not the target audience here.
Green Book is accessible in the way that those mentioned above are not. Despite the expected struggles and confrontations, Green Book is basically comforting feel-good fluff, designed for middle to upper aged conservatives, with minimal discomfort in the way of coarse language, violence, and angry mouth-offs. With this considered, is it really such a bad thing?
Steven Spielberg traversed similar waters with the likes of The Color Purple in 1985, which caused a split reaction with its sympathetic portrayal of women and less so of men in the black community. And lest we forget Driving Miss Daisy (1989), most famously written off by Spike Lee for featuring a subservient black man and the actor playing that role (Morgan Freeman) later felt it was a ‘mistake’ to accept the part as it got him typecast.
Intriguingly, Driving Miss Daisy is a film that Green Book owes a lot to, effectively switching the roles with a low-class white subservient driving a wealthy black man with several doctorates, this role-reversal defying traditional stereotypes. Some have still criticized the film for interpreting the character of Don Shirley as a ‘magical Negro,’ a term used to describe supporting black characters that essentially exist to better their white leads. There are also the scenes where Tony shares his ‘apparent’ knowledge of black culture (fried chicken and Motown music) to the cultured Shirley, who can’t associate, seeing as he comes from a more refined, distinguished world. Some have claimed that these scenes are less about how prominent stereotyped ideas can be and more about a white man teaching a black man how to be black. You could certainly dissect the film from that angle and ultimately dismiss it altogether on those grounds, but even with these potential controversies, it’d be a shame as the friendship at the heart of the story is one worth getting invested in.
I go through such lengths to extrapolate this because truly, at its core, Green Book is a well-made film and I do believe that its heart is in the right place. With the inclusion of Mahershala Ali, Moonlight (2016), who continues his thematic exploration of identity, and everyone’s favorite ‘Aunty’ Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures (2016), jumping on board as executive producer, this should, at minimum, give some pause for thought about the intentions behind the film. I sincerely doubt that these two well-respected African-American actors would commit to such a project if they didn’t believe in Farrelly’s desire to share something positive with moviegoers. Other controversies are surrounding the film, too, with Farrelly recently being targeted by the #MeToo movement for some idiotic actions in the past. Ultimately, though, this doesn’t affect the merit of the movie, as Green Book is a film for this divided time, telling a story about two very different people who eventually find common ground.
The screenplay by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, Two Tickets to Paradise (2006), and Tony Lip’s actual son Nick Vallelonga is a well-rendered impression of a certain time, place and two people just trying to get by, albeit in dissimilar ways. Of course, Nick wasn’t around on the road trip, so presumably, as the tagline ‘Inspired by a True Friendship’ suggests, this is a largely fictionalized story based on information given by Tony during his lifetime (both he and Don Shirley died in 2013). Some of the Shirley family have accused the movie of being inaccurate (again, the tagline reads inspired), even stating that the pair weren’t friends, although Don Shirley himself claimed they were in the 2010 doco Lost Bohemia.
Editor Patrick J. Don Vito, Walk of Shame (2014), keeps the pace snappy by employing montage where appropriate, and cinematographer Sean Porter, 20th Century Women (2016), keeps the palette warm and inviting — very appropriate for this story of an emerging interracial bromance. The music is a treat, with a mix of old school pop by the likes of Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, to a thoughtful score by Kris Bowers, Monsters and Men (2018), and, as one would expect, Don Shirley’s own music.
Both Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic (2016), and Mahershala Ali continue to demonstrate why they’re actors worth our time, with the former feeling immediately familiar and showcasing a few effortless lines in Italian, while as touched on earlier, Ali continues to explore the idea of identity through the generally subdued and proud Shirley, who was also a closet homosexual. One of the few scenes in which a frustrated ‘Doc,’ as Tony calls him, raises his voice in anger, sums up the angst in the character, a guy who was too educated to be embraced by blacks and too black to be accepted by whites — ‘If I’m not black enough, and I’m not white enough, and I’m not man enough, then tell me Tony, what the hell am I?’
When the journey’s over, it’s safe to say that Green Book is tailor-made for a specific audience and is unlikely to grow out further than that. Yes, it’s blatant Oscar-bait, and no, it’s not the best film in the running, but I’d implore any viewers to consider the good within it and the intentions of Peter Farrelly, who tackles social issues of race, and explores themes of friendship and identity in a pleasurable road trip setup.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie