GREEN BOOK (Directed by Peter Farelly, 140 minutes, USA, 2018)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC ‘Based on a true story’ Green Book borrows its title from the Negro Motorist Green Book, informally called the “Green Book”. This mid-20th century guidebook was meant for African-American travelers, to let them know which hotels would be willing to host them in the Deep South. The film, which takes place in the mid-1960s stars as Viggo Mortensen as Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a cardboard cutout of an Italian American stereotype who was a bouncer for the local night club. When the club closes for renovations, Tony is forced him to look for another gig to get his family through to the holidays. Mortensen spends the majority of the film uttering your typical Italian American catchphrases with a thick accent while walking around in a white tank top and eating whole pizzas by simply folding it in half. Much to the chagrin of his wife, he is also a racist. We know this because in the beginning of the film two African American plumbers come to his house and after his wife serves them lemonade, he throws away their glasses. It’s a very non-confrontational way to show he’s a racist, that leaves plenty of room in the third act for his redemption arc.
Tony gets a lead on a job driving around a “doctor” who turns out to be Jamaican-American jazz pianist, composer and alleged homosexual Dr. Don Shirley. It’s not just a driving gig either, we find out Tony would be responsible for driving and escorting Don around the ‘Deep South’ for a two-month tour that conveniently ends right around Christmas just in time for a heartwarming finale. As you would guess, initially the two personalities clash hilariously, but after witnessing the racism Dr. Shirley endures Tony learns the error of his ways, and that’s the problem at the heart of Green Book. It’s a film that would have been interesting about 10 years ago, in its attitude towards racism and its “feel good” approach to a white man’s awakening at its horrors. Sure, the camaraderie and banter between the two characters is fun to watch, and Mahershala Ali is simply wonderful in the role as Shirley. But it genuinely makes you wonder why the focus wasn’t on his character’s struggle, which would be way more complex and satisfying film, with him not only being an intellectual black man during segregation with several PhDs and a white employee.
Instead we get a script co-written by Tony Lip’s that very predictably ends with Dr. Shirley sharing Christmas dinner with Tony’s family. Green Book is not a bad film, but it’s puzzling to see everyone act like its anything more than what it is. Especially in a climate where the people who have actually endured these struggles are able to have creative control and tell their own stories, it’s a bit odd to watch a movie about racism and segregation made by the guy who made Dumb and Dumber. In the current climate the film feels less like the call to action we need than a comfy blanket and a cup cocoa letting us know ‘it will all be all right’. Instead of patronizing Green Book, see Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother or even Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. These are films that have an authenticity Green Book could only hope for and are films about the African American struggle made by African American filmmakers. These are the films that need your support. Despite noble intentions, Green Book feels like too little, too late.