|as a simple, engaging, heartwarming and hugely entertaining buddy comedy that gets a simple but important message across effectively, without patronising or berating its audience
|Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen, Dimiter D Marinov, Iqbal Theba, Joe Cortese, Johnny Williams, Linda Cardellini, Maggie Nixon, Mike Hatton, PJ Byrne
|30th January 2019
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
It’s the early 1960s and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a New York City bouncer, looking for work for a couple of months while his nightclub is closed for refurbishment.
He gets invited to interview for the job of a driver for a Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). When he turns up for the interview – at Carnegie Hall – expecting a white doctor, he’s a little taken aback to be greeted by a black pianist. Dr Shirley, it turns out, is a somewhat aloof classical pianist, who’s booked himself on a tour of the Deep South during the tail-end of the segregation era and feels that he might need just a little bit of protection along the way.
Tony, it turns out, is just a little bit racist – but needs the money, so he takes the job, on the condition that he just drives and protects, but doesn’t have to help out with chores.
The scene is set for an odd-couple road-trip, with the white bouncer learning about the importance of inclusion, while the black musician comes down off his high horse and a blossoming friendship emerges somewhere in the middle.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
On the surface, Green Book sounds like predictable, formulaic Oscar-bait and there’s a sense in which it’s all of those things.
But with its heart-warming Oscar-nominated performances, the efficiency of its story-telling, the precision of the screenwriting and the pitch-perfect production design, it feels authentic, it’s constantly engaging, highly entertaining and leaves you with a sweet – if a little saccharine – taste in your mouth.
It’s an unexpectedly mature handling of a sensitive subject from Peter Farrelly, who built his reputation with such boundary-pushing broad comedies as There’s Something About Mary, Shallow Hal and Stuck on You. Perhaps forgetting its provenance, some critics have questioned Green Book’s describing the humiliation and horror of the black experience through the eyes of a white man – and a racist white man at that. This might be seen by black viewers as patronising – being told what’s its like to be a victim by their oppressors – but that kind of simplistic analysis misses a number of points, not least that presuming that only black people can show us about the black experience is as simplistic and narrow-minded as saying that only white people are racist – or worse, that all white people are racist.
It’s true that learning at the start that our protagonist doesn’t like black people isn’t the best way to endear him to the audience, but the fact that we’re soon rooting for him is a tribute to Viggo Mortensen, Farrelly and the – arguably cynical – script. It’s a little twee, introducing this idea that there’s a moral difference between the nice racists, such as Nick and his family, and the nasty racists, such as the southerners whose inbuilt heritage gives them a sense of entitlement that they don’t even realise is illogical. And it’s also the case that while some films portray racism through violence, the worst things that happen to Don during a trip so delicate that he needed a bodyguard are having to use an outside toilet, being barred from trying on a suit in a shop and not being allowed to eat in a country-club dining room – where he’s about to perform. But that kind of insidious low-level racism is, arguably, more damaging, because its proponents feel that they can do it with a smile and maintain their dignity. But they can’t, which is precisely why telling the story from the white viewpoint is all the more powerful – it’s shaming the nice racists through the behaviour of the nasty racists and showing that the only dignity to be found is within their proud victims. The fact that a Green Book ever existed at all is perhaps the most shameful element for most white viewers.
There’s also the added nuance that the nice racists in this film are themselves minorities – members of New York’s Italian community. This gentle hypocrisy highlights that there can be a fine line between the subconscious intent to protect your own community and wariness towards others, regardless of ethnicity – and it shows us how the way that others treat you can make you stop and think about the way you’re treating others.
The film also has a go at undermining some of the simple prejudices that can lead to more widespread racism – with the white racist being more into black music than the black musician – and the highly educated black man helping the working class white help write letters home
From a narrative point of view, there are a few moments where the relationship between the protagonists doesn’t quite ring true – as it flips a little too violently between disrespect and bonhomie – but there are some delightful touches, if a little sentimental at times, being unafraid of emotionally manipulating the audience.
Green Book has its shortcomings, not least because of it’s broad-brush approach, sacrificing the complexity of one of societies great ills in favour of simplicity and clarity of storytelling, but there’s still room for nuance beneath the surface, warmth on the outside and an unmistakable message that doesn’t leave you feeling you’ve been preached to or told off in the way many other films in this area do. It might be a problem for some to have a message about racism imparted through a white protagonist, but if that targets a different demographic from other films tackling the subject, it’ll be more successful in spreading the message to those who need to hear it, rather than those who already know it.
Reflecting its white viewpoint, the supporting cast is peppered with members of Tony Vallelonga’s family, while Don Shirley’s relatives have insisted that much of this “based on a real story” isn’t real at all, but this isn’t a history lecture – it’s a piece of Hollywood confection that springboards off real characters to add to the wider narrative of race relations while warming your cockles and leaving a smile on your face.
It’s a heart-warming, constantly engaging and hugely entertaining film that shines a light on a difficult part of American history without patronising or berating its audience.