'Green Book' Is Both Insulting And Important
Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali become fast friends in racist times.
It's hard to deny Green Book as anything but well-meaning and fun, but it's a relic. "Well-meaning" and "fun" shouldn't be how you describe a film about overcoming racism. Green Book is the latest in high-gloss civil rights movies made by white folks that includes Driving Miss Daisy, Remember the Titans, The Blind Side, The Help, the list goes on... It feels like it was made in the '90s. However, America needs films like this. It may be a shiny version of an ugly time, but it has the power to change hearts and minds, and that's important at the moment.
Any questions about whether the United States is still woefully behind when it comes to race relations has been put to rest by the last two years in politics. That means a good chunk of the population still needs exposure to other cultures, and that's where films like Green Book come in. Directed by Peter Farrelly, one half of the brotherly team that owned the '90s with comedies like Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary, the film is inspired by The Negro Motorist Green Book, an actual guide printed from 1936 to 1966 advising African-Americans how to travel this racist country safely. Tips include keeping a bucket in your car since bathrooms were mostly white only.
The guide book is a smart way to frame the narrative which follows the odd couple pairing of sophisticated pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and blue collar bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). Shirley hires the racist "Tony Lip" to be his driver on a tour of the Jim Crow south out of sheer necessity. And, along the way, they become close and introduce each other to their individual worlds. Tony is wowed by Shirley's musical acumen and disgusted by how people treat him. He soon becomes a loyal guard dog and introduces Shirley to the finer things in life, like fried chicken.
Rated PG-13, Green Book isn't interested in shocking us with the horrors of racism. Compared to movies like Mudbound last year, or Blackkklansman this year, Green Book is kids' stuff. The fried chicken scene, as an example, uses a tired stereotype reversal for laughs. Shirley has never eaten KFC in his life and Tony forces him to try it in awkward excitement. White people like Tony weren't just racism superheroes, they gave black people fried chicken too! Clap it up for Tony! It's one huge eye-roll, but one that'll play well for the masses.
Audiences need their racism spoon-fed to them. The truth is most serious, authentic films about the subject are not seen. In order to reach more people, stories have to be sprinkled with toppings and framed in neon sometimes. Farrelly deserves credit for delivering that kind of a product. Green Book is one of the better candy-coated racism movies and there are two people chiefly responsible.
Ali and Mortensen thrive onscreen together. Despite the simplistic script by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga (Tony Lip's son), the acting is immense and the two stars elevate everything around them. This movie would've been a powerhouse with the right writer/director. Instead, it's mostly a comedy as Farrelly plays every wink for a laugh. That decision dulls the drama and leads to an overall lack of gravitas unworthy of the story. Without Ali and Mortensen, Green Book is in that huge bin at Best Buy with a pink sticker on it.