Green Book

Green Book stars Mahershala Ali as pianist Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as his driver and bodyguard Tony Vallelonga aka Tony Lip, as the two tours the deep south in the 1960s.  It is based on a true story, co-written by Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son. It was directed by Peter Farrelly of Farrelly Brothers fame. Though he’s primarily known for broad comedies like Dumb and Dumber, Green Book is a turn toward the more serious material.  It just won the People’s Choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is usually an indicator that a film is headed for a Best Picture Academy Award nomination.

Green Book is something of a buddy road trip movie, though the two main characters are from such different worlds that they barely understand each other.  Shirley is educated and aristocratic, while Tony Lip is a barely literate bouncer. As they go through the deep south, of course, they encounter discrimination and segregation.  They have to rely on the Negro Motorist Green Book to find places that Shirley is allowed to stay, which are sometimes far shabbier than the places Tony can stay in.  Though it tackles serious subjects, the tone of Green Book is relatively lighthearted, with plenty of humor throughout, both in the form of disagreements between the driver and the musician and in Tony’s letters home to his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini).

They have to rely on the Negro Motorist Green Book to find places that Shirley is allowed to stay...”

Tony is written as the stereotypical mob-connected Italian-American New Yorker, and I’d take it almost like a caricature if it weren’t written by his own son.  It the hands of a lesser actor it would be easy for this character to come across as a joke, but Viggo Mortensen gives him some depth. Since he often plays serious, violent guys, it is fun to see him here in a more playful role.  Mahershala Ali is always great, though as the straight man he doesn’t have quite as much to do. He is absolutely convincing as a piano player, though he had to take lessons for the film. There are some shots of him apparently playing like a master, though he’s admitted there was some “movie magic” involved as well. I’d really like to know how that was done because the effect is seamless.  

Green Book is a real crowd pleaser — aside from the banter between the oppositely-minded characters, it has clear heroes and villains. The writers do manage to sneak a few nuances in, especially when discussing Shirley feeling out of place in both the white and black communities.  

Still, my main complaint is that once you know the setup and how Hollywood movies work, you know almost beat by beat how the film will play out.  

Sometimes the characters have no choice but to suffer...”

I can’t help but note that the director and all three writers are white (Vallelonga, Farrelly, and Brian Hayes Currie).  There were many black folks involved in the production, including Octavia Spencer who is an executive producer but does not act in the film.  I have no particular complaints that these writers got anything wrong, though I’m not qualified to properly judge the black experience (I did grow up in the South and I can at least vouch for the fact that they got the racism right).  My point is just that I long for the day when every Hollywood film about the black experience has at least one black writer.

The usual thing in movies about racism is that characters learn to be less racist by befriending someone from another race.  That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t address systemic racism. Refreshingly Green Book does that in that the main antagonist is the system itself.  The characters here deal with humiliation after humiliation, and usually, there’s no “Hollywood solution,” like just punching your way out of danger.  The danger is ever-present and all around you. Sometimes the characters have no choice but to suffer.

I’m not sure Green Book will make my top 10 list of films for the year — it is an exceptionally strong year.  Still, it is an important movie and a fun one too. That’s such a rare combination that you owe it to yourself to see it.

Green Book (2018) Directed by Peter Farrelly. Written by Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini.

Rating: 9/10

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