I don’t even know where to start, y’all. “Green Book” — which is based on a true story — ticks the boxes all the way across the board.
It’s the story of an unlikely friendship between two men who couldn’t be more different. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a cultured, mild-mannered black pianist, decides to embark on a national tour that will take him through the Deep South. In the 1960s. In other words, he not only needs a driver, but he needs muscle who can handle violent bigots. Enter Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). His real name is Tony Vallelonga, but he’s known for his ability to BS and friends just refer to him as Tony Lip.
While Don is a man you could discuss art or literature with, Tony isn’t quite so refined, to put it bluntly. He does appreciate music like Sam Cooke or Aretha Franklin, who he refers to as Don’s “people.” A similar moment occurs when Tony tells Don he should eat fried chicken because it’s what his “people” eat. Yeah …
Race is at the center of most everything in this film, even its title. “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was an actual book that informed black travelers about safe havens in the South. After all, segregation was in full force during this time period, and even motels weren’t exempt. The green book listed motels in each state where a black person could find a room.
The film took home three Golden Globes a couple of weeks ago, including a best supporting actor nod for Ali and best motion picture (musical or comedy). (Yeah, a film about racism is considered a comedy.) The film also has sparked a mess of controversy as members of the real-life Shirley’s family have come forward, saying the film takes too many liberties and does nothing but portray a white hero.
I’ll be honest. I haven’t spent time researching the real Don or Tony. Maybe their story is Hollywood-ized. Honestly? It probably is. Creative liberties are usually taken when it comes to bio-pics. Annoyance usually correlates with how invested the viewer is. With “Green Book,” I was only invested in one thing: a good story.
If you were to read the script for “Green Book,” you’d find cringe-worthy moment after cringe-worthy moment. Tony is a man with real problems with race, read: racist here. At his home, we see him throw two glasses in the trash because black home service technicians had been drinking from them. His wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini) rescues them, by the way.
Tony’s entire journey is one from virulent racist who throws away glasses touched by persons of color to one who isn’t as virulently racist. That’s his journey. It does a good job documenting that slight change.
Don’s journey is far more interesting, but it doesn’t exactly make its way to the surface. Ali is a great actor who has proven he could give some of the greatest actors of today a run for their money. However, I find it hard to give someone an acting award for someone whose emotions and thoughts fly largely below the radar, except for a few powerhouse scenes. That’s not his fault. Merely, a script shortcoming, because it is so laser-focused on Tony, his family and their own racism.
“Green Book” does a good job of capturing so much of the era’s racism, both covert and overt. As I said, it is chockful of moments that will make you cringe. (However, one’s experiences and perspective will clearly decrease or intensify your level of shock.) It’s hard to not witness any of these characters’ suffering without sympathizing with their plight, but this one does at times succeed in making you empathize with them.
For example, Don is someone who exists outside the dualistic construct of race we’ve constructed, someone who is not accepted or appreciated by either blacks or whites. He’s additionally someone who exists outside the dualistic construct of gender, someone who is not wholly feminine or masculine, at least as we have defined those terms. He’s also someone who exists outside the dualistic construct of sexuality, someone who doesn’t conform to either heterosexual or homosexual. He’s given a fairly powerful monologue where he expresses his alienation and confusion in a matter-of-fact, succinct way. These emotions aren’t explored in greater detail anywhere else, and it’s a testament to Ali’s artistry and skill that he’s able to pack so much understanding into a rather brief monologue.
Bottom line: “Green Book” excels at what it sets out to do. I’d be incorrect if I said this is a complete, fully thought-out movie — because it clearly loses some of its power in choosing to focus so much on Tony. However, it’s a good film. Maybe it can elicit constructive dialogues about our past, present and shared future.