Green Book (2018)
Dir: Peter Farrelly
Some critics are saying this film is one of the best of the year, sure to have an enduring legacy, calling it a buddy-comedy and a road-trip movie. Though I understand how you can see it that way, I don’t think these terms accurately characterise this film, or at least they shouldn’t.
Club security Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is hired to be the driver and security for popular African-American pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he embarks on a concert tour of the southern ‘Jim Crow’ states.
Firstly, they’re not ‘buddies’ in the outset, this is a business arrangement, one done under some sense of duress for both parties. Then, it’s not a jaunty road trip. Though some states, especially early on, are not problematic, with lavish accommodation and all amenities, the setting and era makes it far from a vacation, as the issues faced in some states, ever-present from the eponymous ‘Green Book’ mean there’s a serious backdrop to this tour, an ominous potential for drama at every moment. The film enters into that theme through varied and escalating issues and confrontations. I saw one writer describe it as ‘a film about racism by implication’ and that’s a brilliant way of putting it. It doesn’t tackle the issues in any real way, though often it confuses doing so with just being heavy-handed in making its point.
The biggest and most serious criticism some have raised against the film is that, maybe unintentionally, it presents Tony Vallelonga as a ‘white saviour’ and award nominations have made it clear through their categorising of the performances that it definitely puts him in the lead role. The film gives Tony the biggest and most rewarding arc, which is not a surprise when you know that Vallelonga’s son Nick was one of the writers. He’s certainly an interesting character, of that there’s no dispute. In later life, he went on to be an actor, facilitated by meeting people at the club, starring as a mobster in ‘Donnie Brasco’, ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘The Sopranos’. At the time we are introduced to him in the film he’s a heavy, a driver, but from the outset shown to be resourceful, with a level of social intelligence (or ‘street smarts’ if you will) that sets him apart from most and makes him invaluable to many, Don Shirley included. From the outset though, he is also racist, not vigorously, but it’s deeply rooted, shown through actions that are lingered on to make sure their point couldn’t be missed. To lessen their impact and not turn us against the character, in the next scene he’s shown to be someone who will provide for his family by winning a hotdog eating bet, and how can we possibly hate someone like that? Sure he may harbour racist inclinations, but he loves his family, and we know that he will change. At that point in the film you could sketch out the rest of the character ‘development’ with disquieting accuracy.
Don Shirley is a fascinating character, portrayed by Mahershala Ali, as quite ponderous. He has some semblance of a character arc, albeit misguided at times, especially as he’s given some pushback from his ‘Pygmalion’ efforts to refine Tony, which often comes across more like a scolding parent than a kindly teacher. Tony in his own unrefined way teaches his employer about popular black music, and at one point gives him a lesson in how to eat fried chicken, yes, you read that right. In this plot thread alone even I could see a clear problem. When given a piece of fried chicken to try Dr. Shirley really enjoys it, it’s not something he had been inclined to eat before, the stereotype being just one of the reasons clearly stated for why. Later though fried chicken returns, an insidious instance of racism by clueless white people. There’s a long and complex history to friend chicken that I’m not even remotely qualified to explain, but fascinating reading if you research it. It’s not explained fully but the implications are strong and should be dismaying, but we’ve earlier been shown that Don has just acquired a taste for the dish, he would enjoy eating it, which really takes some of the necessary sting out of this incident. Many incidents like this one and others are sadly mishandled, or at the very least lack subtlety. The best visual depiction of how these things are affecting Dr. Shirley is the way we see increased anger in his piano playing, a nuance to the performance that I must admit I’m inclined to attribute to Mahershala Ali as it stands out far apart as a better way to show things than almost anything else in the film.
On the point of music, there’s obviously a lot of it in the film, from a variety of artists from the era. Yet, from carefully watching the credits I noted just one song on the OST was performed by the real Don Shirley. When you consider this is in a year in which we’ve had a Queen biopic in which next to nothing but Queen, with much of the original vocal performances by (or at least accredited to) Freddy Mercury, it seems like a wasted opportunity to showcase the lauded talents of one of the lead characters.
It’s had huge praise in America, with many critics and awarding bodies holding it aloft as one of the best films of the year. I want to be able to assume that it’s partly because of my not being American and fully educated in racial politics and history (beyond what I’ve learnt from my film and TV consumption) that I don’t think it’s all that special, like it’s my fault, but it’s not.
It’s definitely a feel-good movie, there are light moments of comedy, touching moments of friendship and love, it certainly has reason to garner such terms as ‘heartwarming’ and ‘entertaining’ but it probably shouldn’t, it should aspire to and achieve more than that. This is not to detract from where the film does do things well, for instance, I think it looks very good, the cinematography is vividly colourful and the award-nominated editing serves the story being told. All the performances, especially the two leads are excellent, their awards nominations can serve as some confirmation of at least that. But the foundation of the film, its writing, is fundamentally flawed, from the perceived comedic tone through to the laughably clichéd ending. The three named writers, Tony’s son Nick Vallelonga, director Peter Farrelly, and Brian Currie, are all white, as are most of the producers. The Shirley family largely condemned the film, saying they weren’t consulted at all, something Mahershala Ali apologized for, stating he wasn’t made aware that there were any close relatives he could speak to in service of honing his character. Don Shirley’s side of matters, his viewpoint, experiences, are filtered down as hearsay through Nick Vallelonga. In all honesty, it’s not a film about racism, it’s a film about Tony, written by his son in honour of his father and about an interesting time in his life where he learnt that he shouldn’t be racist.
I don’t get how this was even nominated for the Golden Globe category ‘Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy’ yet ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was ‘Best Motion Picture – Drama’. I think if Tony Vallelonga had not been someone of note, more recognisable than Don Shirley, especially as one of the writers was his son, this story and film might have been told very differently and less able to let the comedic moments define it. For this and other reasons, I don’t think it will get any of the 5 Academy Awards other than possibly the one for Mahershala Ali’s ‘supporting’ performance.