Green Book is one of those movies that are so often described as the “feel-good movie of the year!” in marketing blurbs, and to me that generally describes something that’s wholesome to its core, generally involving good people doing good things (Forrest Gump), or mean people finally unlocking their inner good selves after learning some life lessons (Scrooge from A Christmas Carol). Green Book doesn’t flip the script here, nor does it make any kind of valiant attempt to disguise its lack of ambition. With this approach you sometimes end up with something closer in spirit to a Lifetime TV movie, but sometimes the talent involved can elevate the material, and that’s what saved Green Book for me.
Green Book has more than just the pedigree of two great actors sharing the screen though – it’s based on a true story, the relationship of two men in the 1950s who couldn’t be further apart; Don Shirley, an African American classical pianist, and Frank Vallelonga, a New York City club bouncer. Given the era, you can already guess that racial tensions are going to be at the forefront of the movie, much like how things are in today’s polarized, pressure-cooker political climate. I think it’s crass for a reviewer to show their political bias when reviewing movies, so I’ll stick to what’s more important here: the movie, and not me.
The movie opens in pretty familiar territory – New York, a city full of Wise Guys, made men sitting at private tables in clubs, waited on by staff eager to give favours. Scorsese made a living off this kind of material. Frank, known as “Tony Lip” and played by Viggo Mortenson, works in this world, and has done so long enough to know how to play the system to his advantage, but after one incident finds himself only scraping by from one job to another. An opportunity comes along – a driver’s job, a chauffeur – something Frank is perfectly capable of, but when he attends the interview, and sees who he’ll be driving, he bails. The boss, it turns out, is a well educated, aloof black man, Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali who does his talking sitting on a throne and decked out like an African prince. In other words, an “uppity black”, to use a derogatory term. Frank, you see, has the casual racist tendencies that make him throw away two perfectly good glasses at home after two black repairman have drank from them. But he also has qualities Shirley needs – he’s white, and can “handle himself”, meaning he’s violent and intimidating when he needs to be, something absolutely necessary for the job. Convinced to come back for a second round of discussions, Frank learns the job involves heading to the American south to play some high society (white, of course) gigs, something that would be too dangerous for a black man to even consider doing alone, or even with other members of his own race. When enough money is thrown at Frank, he accepts the job, and is given a copy of the Green Book of the title, a listing of the various hotels, motels, gas stations, and restaurants that serve black patrons in the American south.
What follows is pretty standard fare, and I’d say fairly predictable and routine. It’s a buddy road trip movie, basically. Sure, it’s not a comedy like, say, Due Date, but the tropes are the same: two opposites find common ground and learn to tolerate each other, if not outright like. I didn’t find much to object to here, because I felt the story played it all very safe. It didn’t teach me anything other than what I already knew: the American south was deeply racist even towards highly educated black people. This is the backdrop during which the transformation arcs of the characters play out, and I have to admit, the two actors are what made it happen for me. I’m a long time fan of Mortenson, going back to before Lord of the Rings, and I can honestly say I love seeing this guy perform. So too I’m a fan of Ali, even though he hasn’t assembled a large body of work yet. He was what made Luke Cage season 1 stand out, and after he departed the show I couldn’t care less. In True Detective season 3, his chemistry with Stephen Dorff was what made the entire season worth viewing. While Mortenson plays roles with a kind of enigmatic laconic detachment, Ali tends to play characters who are tightly wound up, tightly-corked bottles full of secrets – they were a great onscreen pairing. Unfortunately, the learning phase of act 2 is unbalanced. Frank might be casually racist the movie shows us, but he’s not that bad, the movie tells us. He might throw away glasses that were touched by black men’s lips, but he still can see the injustices of the deep south’s attitudes towards their fellow man. At the end, Frank doesn’t really change all that much. Don, however, is made to see his true worth by being forced out from behind the brick wall he built for himself and, essentially, accepting his race. Unfortunately this means we’re treated to a scene where he reluctantly tries some fried chicken, (and loves it!) and finds himself when he and Frank go to a mostly poor black bar and he bangs out a raucous tune on the old piano. I felt the movie should have been more equitable. If Don has to fundamentally change to become a more complete human being, Frank should have had to change that much too. It also doesn’t really help that Frank who is the one who pushes Don along on his journey of self discovery, but only Frank who makes the changes in himself. I’m not too fond of the “white saviour” tag in movies, but sometimes they’re justified, and I feel that’s the case with Green Book. It’s a movie that needed a lot more depth and nuance than what it does have to fully resonate, but it never really aimed all that high to begin with.
I might have given you the impression I didn’t like it, but the fact is I did enjoy it for the most part. There’s no actual schmaltz, but the ending completely hits that kind of “feel-good movie of the year!” note, and it didn’t feel completely phony to me. Faults aside, I found it to be vaguely satisfying – though if I’m completely honest, a lot of that was just seeing those two actors together in the same movie
© Andrew Hope, 2019