Green Book

Green Book

Peter Farrelly (2018)

The new film Green Book opened this past weekend to generally very positive reviews and very positive audience reactions, and this after the film won the Audience Favorite Award at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this year. It’s not difficult to see why audiences react favorably to this film: It is squarely in a very comfortable and recognizable popular Hollywood genre—the “buddy” film—in which two mismatched personalities are thrown together for some reason and end up in a relationship of mutual respect and admiration, each learning from the other. Quite often such films have involved a pair from very different social, class or intellectual backgrounds (think Rainman), different sides of the law (think Midnight Run), different genders (think His Girl Friday) or, maybe most often, different races (think The Defiant Ones, 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon).

But director Peter Farrelly (creator of such popular successes as There’s Something About Mary) has yoked the buddy film with another favorite Hollywood genre, the road movie—a film in which, typically the character’s outward journey reflects an internal transformation, as the characters undergo changes in responses to their experiences on the road. It’s a narrative structure that goes back as far as The Odyssey (and, in America, to Huckleberry Finn), and the buddy-road hybrid genre has been a part of cinema almost since its beginning, whether in the form of pure comedy (like the Hope and Crosby “Road to…” pictures, or Farrelly’s own Dumb and Dumber), or romance (like It Happened One Night) or even tragedy (like Thelma and Louise).Green Bookhits all the right notes for a conventional buddy-road movie, pairing white lowbrow racist bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen of Lord of the Rings) with black highbrow gay musician Don Shirley (Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali of Moonlight) on a road trip through the deep south in 1962.

The film, which was co-written by Vallelonga’s son Nick, was based on stories his father told him about this particular road trip, and which Nick recorded before his father’s death in 2013. So it should be clear from the start that the story is seen through the eyes of Vallelonga, and therefore it is his character who proves more dynamic, and experiences the more significant change.

The other important piece of background information concerns the film’s title. The Negro Motorist Green Book, generally shortened to The Green Book, was a popular travel guide for African Americans that listed businesses (especially restaurants, motels and other establishments important for anyone on a road trip) throughout the United States that were friendly to or accepting of black patrons. The book, published annually between 1936 and 1967, was necessary particularly in the Jim Crow south, when African American travelers might be subject to discrimination, intimidation or harassment, or may even inadvertently enter a “sundown town,” where African Americans were not allowed to be after dark. In the film, Tony and Dr. Shirley are guided by the Green Book in finding food and lodging as they journey through the south.

As the film opens, Tony is working as a bouncer at the Copacabana, but when the nightclub closes for two months for renovations, he finds himself temporarily out of a job. He turns down an offer to work for some obvious mob types, and although he’s able to win a $50 bet by eating twenty-six hot dogs at one sitting, he admits he can’t do that every day. So when he learns that a certain Doctor Shirley is looking for a temporary driver, he decides to interview for the job. Turns out the address is Carnegie Hall, and it’s no medical doctor he’ll be driving, but a popular jazz musician and composer whose record company is funding a tour across the Midwest and into the South. And oh, yeah, Doctor Shirley turns out to be black, which means that Tony’s bouncer skills may very well be of some use on that southbound odyssey.

That Tony is an unapologetic racist from a whole family of racists is clear from an early scene, in which he walks into his living room to find his whole extended family watching the Yankees play the Giants in the ’62 World Series. They have come over to be with Tony’s wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini of A Simple Favor nd TV’s Mad Men) so that she doesn’t have to be alone with two African American workmen in the house. She offers the two workers glasses of water, and when the black workers have left Tony throws the “contaminated” glasses into the garbage. It’s quite clear how far he has to go, and in what direction.

So it’s also clear that Tony is going to have some difficulty in working for the African American pianist. Dr. Shirley, for his part, is reputed to have three doctoral degrees (in music, psychology, and liturgical arts) and to be able to speak eight languages (he demonstrates his Italian and his Russian in the film). He was a musical prodigy who at the age of nine was invited to study at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. He lives in an apartment above Carnegie Hall that is richly decorated with valuable items from abroad including a pair of great elephant tusks, and he dresses in elegant and showy robes when he’s at home, and tuxedos when he is not. These things give him a kind of autocratic air as if he looks down on everyone and everything from a great height, and his opinion of Tony’s ungrammatical Bronx-accented chatter is about what you’d expect it to be.

As a buddy/road trip picture, you know that Green Book will manifest certain predetermined expectations. This makes the film very predictable and, of course, we get a kick out of things as they develop according to our expectations. Tony grows to respect Doctor Shirley for his intellect, then begins to admire him as a genius at the piano, and finally grows to like him as a human being and as a friend. And presto, he is no longer a racist.

Doctor Shirley’s transformation is more complicated because his problems are less black and white. His intellectual isolation is the result, to a large extent, of his feeling of not fitting in, and of finding no true home in either the black or the white world. Tony chides him for not liking fried chicken, or for not recognizing Little Richard on the radio, and while these things merely underscore Tony’s racism, since he believes all black people must be a certain way, they also suggest Dr. Shirley’s discomfort among his fellow African Americans: He has a brother with whom he never communicates; we see him at one of the hotels recommended in the Green Book unable to socialize with the other residents; and, finally, he appears to have no real friends. In part, his sexual orientation seems to contribute to his isolation. But in the end, of course, this being the kind of movie it is, he is able to let loose a bit, and he does end up with a friend, albeit  a white one. And so we have a feel-good movie for the Christmas season, with a peace-on-earth-goodwill-to-men theme and wrapped up with a bow.

The film has sparked some negative responses, particularly from African American critics who complain that it’s just another “white savior” movie—which it is in a way, but of course that’s precisely why Tony was hired, to protect the Doc as he makes his way across the south at a time of heightened racism the year after the first “freedom riders” ramped up the civil rights movement. Some have also complained that it’s really just the story of a white racist who becomes woke by making one African American friend. So it’s a movie that presents the old “I’m not a racist. I have a black friend” philosophy. And truly, that is pretty much what the movie suggests.

I think a bigger danger with this film, though, is the kind of nostalgic mood it invokes as a successful period piece. What are we being asked to be nostalgic for? Jim Crow? Surely that was not Farrelly’s intent. He works hard to show how dangerous it could be for a black man to travel through an openly racist south at a time when bigots and acts of senseless and unprovoked racial violence were accepted and even condoned by law enforcement. The danger is that, in the era of Black Lives Matter, viewers of the film may convince themselves that those days are gone. Farrelly may be trying to suggest that the wheel has come full circle, and that we are back to a time when hatred of people like Doctor Shirley is once again condoned by persons in power, and so has become more prevalent once more. But if that is the takeaway here, it’s one that the viewer must come to on his or her own.

It should be mentioned, too, that Doctor Shirley’s family has criticized the film for its inaccurate portrayal of the character. He was not, they insist, out of touch with his African American roots. But that kind of fictionalization was probably needed to balance the film, in order to give both characters a direction to grow. Both actors are excellent in their roles, by the way. Mortenson in particular had to work hard to develop a believable Bronx accent and mannerisms, and had to put on a lot of weight to become the somewhat flabby tough guy (the real Tony Lip, by the way, went on to enter show business himself, landing a small part in TheGodfatherand ending his career as Carmine Lupertazzi in The Sopranos. Who knew?)

Despite some flaws, the film as a buddy movie-road movie is enjoyable. Three Tennysons for this one.

 

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