Green Book is a relatively simple tale of unlikely people forming a close bond. It’s little formulaic but also incredibly problematic and tropey. However, its two lead actors Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen are undeniably charismatic.
Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley, a classically trained pianist embarking on a road trip that includes stops through the Deep South. Mortenson plays Tony Vallelonga aka Tony Lip, who is hired as his driver and protector of sorts. He is a guy who has grown up in the Bronx and run security at clubs across Manhattan as well as all sorts of low key scams. He is also… er, pretty racist and so is his big Italian family.
The film isn’t shy about its social agenda, showing the unfairness of a segregated South and all of the indignity that Dr. Shirley has to suffer through. But the problem is the point of view character for us is Tony Lip, and we’re still learning in 2018 that racism is. . . *gasp* bad? and still exists! *double gasp*
While straightforward and easy to follow, it’s a tad long. The “odd couple” pairing works for the most part, though it’s very surface level. Luckily the actors so completely melt into their roles that it makes it altogether enjoyable to watch.
With a not-so-subtle subtext of them having to get home from their tour before Christmas, this is aimed directly at the heart of holiday moviegoers and Oscar voters. Both should find some of what they’re looking for here, but this is nowhere near as interesting as other similarly themed recent films such as Hidden Figures.
Despite this, the film has rightfully been criticized for its “white savior” narrative. While it might be funny or interesting for the streetsmart Tony to teach the fastidious musical impresario various things from how to eat fried chicken to who the popular black artists are on the radio, it really feels weird. I mean, some mook from the Bronx is teaching one of the country’s greatest musical talents “how to be black”? Yeah, not here for this. Also, Shirley’s family has weighed in saying that these things are complete fabrications. Strike One.
Then there’s the question of why Dr. Shirley would tour through the South and play such normally segregated venues. [Spoiler alert: skip to end of the paragraph if you don’t want to know] Near the end of the film, one of Dr. Shirley’s bandmates tells a story of how Nat King Cole played one of the same venues a decade before and after the show was taken out back and beaten. I’m left asking myself, “Why am I not watching that movie?” Strike Two.
And then there’s the not-so-subtle message. Racism is bad. We get it. Segregation is bad. However, in the hamfisted way this film is delivered, it pretends that it’s only the overt racism that is our nation’s great moral deficit. Well, since we don’t have Jim Crow anymore and Jay-Z and Beyonce can stay in any hotel, shop in any store, play at any venue that racism is over. That’s a deeply false statement. And the fact that a movie like Green Book can be made and be seen as racially progressive (“Compared to what?”) when it fails to address so many other subtle forms of racism is, if not a step backwards, at least a jog in place. Ok, maybe not Strike Three, but that’s a couple of fouls into the stands.
In essence, this movie is a perfect film for any number of white liberals. They’re not racist, per se, but not “woke” either. They’re the people who will casually say “All Lives Matter” and who think racism ended after we passed the Voting Rights Act. They’re the family from Get Out.
All that being said, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortenson really are spectacular. Even though their schtick can run thin at times, and even though the film’s message has the subtlety of a sledgehammer, it’s still enjoyable to watch.
3 out of 5 stars