Film | Green Book - a film about racial equality that feels biased and reductive
When Copacabana closes for refurbishment, bouncer Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is invited to interview for a driving job to tide his family over until it reopens. Despite his racial prejudices, he agrees to chauffeur "Doc" Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on his troupe's planned tour of the Deep South, from New York to Alabama, promising his wife Delores (Linda Cardellini) that he'll be home in time for Christmas. Early performances go ahead without a hitch, although the journeys between them are peppered with disagreements, but once The Don Shirley Trio leave the Midwest they find themselves separated, arrested and endangered -- Shirley resisting provocation while Vallelonga overreacts to every situation. As the southern states conspire to segregate them, however, the pair begin to develop a mutual respect and enduring bond.
You get the impression watching Green Book that writer-director Peter Farrelly's heart is in the right place. Like There's Something About Mary, Shallow Hal and The Heartbreak Kid, all of which he co-directed alongside his brother Bobby, it seems innocent enough on the surface and perhaps even passingly progressive, but pay it any closer attention and you realise just how problematic it is. Here is a supposedly serious film, starring established and respected actors, about race relations in 1960s America that dares to be charming and funny, eschewing the contemporary horrors of films such as Selma and Detroit in favour of an old-fashioned odd-couple comedy that plays like an inverted Driving Miss Daisy. There is nothing wrong with this, obviously, as there are hopeful tales to be told even in the darkest of times, but this embellished true story ultimately feels as though it is doing more harm than good.
The issues are immediately apparent, and are inextricably tied to Farrelly's choice of protagonist. Two men made the journey from New York to Birmingham in 1962 -- one a prodigious black pianist determined to challenge prejudices in the South and the other an Italian-American maître d' who would later make his name as an actor on The Sopranos. On paper and in practice, at least at this point in history, Shirley seems like the obvious and most compelling choice of lead, and yet the film -- co-written by Vallelonga's real-life son, Nick -- opts to present the story from the perspective on Tony. Not only does this make Shirley the supporting character in a film named after 'The Negro Motorist Green Book' but it opens the film to criticism through the infamous White Saviour trope, by which black characters are marginalised in movies supposedly exploring race and the civil rights movement. This is most keenly felt in a misjudged scene in which Vallelonga introduces Shirley to the simple joys of fried chicken and Motown.
What saves Green Book from its hamfisted attempts at redefining racism for a modern era, and helps take the sting off of Vallelonga's assertion that he's blacker than Shirley for knowing who Bill Massey is, are the combined talents of its cast -- surely the only reason the film has garnered the awards attention that it has. Mortensen and Cardellini may be lumbered with two of the broadest, most stereotypically Italian accents this side of a Dolmio advert but their interactions shine with warms and humanity. Whether the writers or director of Green Book envision it or not, however, this is ultimately Ali's movie -- and the Moonlight actor delivers a gripping performance of such dignity and depth that at times you begin to wonder whether Farrelly might have been on to something after all. As films like Black Panther and BlacKkKlansmen have proven, there are still discussions to be had about race and identity, and Ali speaks with such intelligence and authority that you sometimes forget whose words they actually are.
While not quite as misguided as 2011's Oscar hopeful The Help, Green Book does smack of insincerity and ignorance — not helped by the fact that it’s story has been largely debunked by Shirley’s own family. Neither Vallelonga nor Shirley's character arcs feel particularly clear or convincing (the former never seemed all that bigoted to begin with while the latter learns to loosen up a little) and without compelling characters to engage with an actor's charisma can only carry an audience so far. The passenger shouldn’t have to get out and push.