This review is coverage for Twin Cities Film Fest.
Green Book feels a lot like something I would have seen in high school. As part of the school library’s ostensibly educational DVD collection, I can easily see Green Book being used to supplement some teacher’s burnt-out stalling tactics, not letting the lack of a lesson plan prevent restless students from gleaning important lessons about friendship and overcoming racism. I can see theoretical small town students deriving enjoyment from the impromptu movie day and getting the smug satisfaction that they are, in fact, not a racist, that they are the product of a society having moved past racial animus, at least in those clearly superior Northern states where racism was never quite so bad as in the dreaded Deep South. Green Book would have been a part of the education that justified that perception in myself and my peers a decade ago, part of the education that didn’t teach us to examine our prejudices but that being kind was in and of itself the cure against racism. And because we were so enlightened, we would get to laugh at the mismatched antics of two men who could not be more different, not just because of the society that segregated their races, but because they were each so far removed from the stereotypes of their races that this in itself is a source of amusement. When the class was over and the bell rang, we’d move on with our lives, secure in the knowledge that Racism Is Bad, and that we would never have to worry about that looming specter ever again.
Green Book was made not in 1998, but in 2018, and if the sentimental portrayal of race relations wouldn’t have been seen as tone-deaf then, it sure as hell should be now.
Based on the true story of Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), Green Book chronicles the friendship that developed between the two vastly different men when Dr. Shirley employed Tony as a driver for a piano concert tour through the Deep South in 1962. The problem is that Tony, coming from a traditional Italian family and having less-than-charitable attitudes toward black folks, is persistently at odds with his employer, not precisely because of his race, but because Dr. Shirley presents himself with an aristocratic aloofness that leaves Tony feeling alienated and confused. Conversely, Dr. Shirley finds himself having trouble coping with Tony’s brash, street-wise attitude, cringing at casually racist remarks and failing to understand why Tony does not recognize the privilege his whiteness affords him, particularly in the South. Over the course of their travels, Tony and Dr. Shirley come to recognize their common humanity, and thus at least one white man is won over by a single black man’s commitment to respectability.
Green Book aims to be an odd-couple road movie, with Tony as the audience point-of-view character and Dr. Shirley as the oddity worth examination. Tony is himself a crude and boisterous man who has plenty of personal failings, racist or not, but his antics are framed as relatable because he says and does things without inhibition, which include making insensitive or stupid statements without self-awareness but not hesitating to loyally defend Dr. Shirley when the situation calls for it. He’s supposed to be likable, and in a sense he is, but that likeability exists in stark contrast to Dr. Shirley, who purposely starts off as abrasive because we, through Tony’s perspective, are supposed to see him as above his station, and therefore much of the comedy is rooted in Tony's own apparently relatable prejudices. No, Dr. Shirley must earn his relatability through suffering at the hands of more violent racists and, eventually, learn to connect with the black American culture that he feels so divorced from. It doesn’t matter that these characters and events are based on reality, because how they are framed never stops treating the white perspective as the default, nor does it interrogate Tony’s – or consequently the audience’s – role as a white savior, leaving the implicit attitudes of that framing unquestioned.
These are largely failings of the screenplay, written by three white men with seemingly no black input, which is a shame because Peter Farrelly actually demonstrates that he still has some chops in directing buddy comedies, even if the jokes are overshadowed by an out-of-touch archetypal reduction of his characters. Mortensen is laying the Italian bravado on thick, but he does manage to eke out some legitimately great moments of physical comedy, with Ali playing a pretty fantastic straight man. (Well, Dr. Shirley was gay, but you get my meaning.) Ali is even afforded pretty emotional moments of monologuing, but they are still mere moments because if we got too deep in the weeds on the complex emotions of racism we wouldn’t have time to keep joking about how Tony isn’t that racist anymore.
General audiences are going to find a lot of pleasure in this film, or at least white baby boomers will, because Green Book paints the world in broad strokes of storybook morality while being crass enough that adults won’t feel condescended to in the process. It’s a feel-good story if you are somehow able to look past the overbearing reality of today’s pervading racism, if your understanding of race relations can boil down to one white man learning to be kind to one black man. If you leave the theater with the feeling that relating to Tony’s story makes you certifiably Not Racist, then the movie has done its job. But maybe you should demand something more from your entertainment than to be left unchallenged in a world that is now more than ever contesting your privilege to remain unchallenged.