Director: Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Dimiter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton, Sebastian Maniscalco
When Julia Roberts announced Green Book as the Best Picture winner at this year’s Academy Awards there was a collective groan from film Twitter quickly followed by the clattering keyboards of a thousand opinion pieces and editorials. Some saw the victory of this rather old fashioned drama as evidence that the Academy’s recent efforts to expand and diversify its membership had not yet succeeded in shifting the balance of power within the organisation. Some saw it as evidence of an anti-Netflix sentiment manipulating the preferential voting system to push against Roma. Whatever the theory, the opinion shared by most had Green Book as an underwhelming winner, with some going so far as to call it the worst best picture winner in history, or at least the worst since Crash.
Yet for all the derision aimed at it, clearly enough people admired the film for it to claim the top prize. The question that the gulf between Green Book’s supporters and detractors would seemingly beg – not to mention the even more polarising response to Bohemian Rhapsody – is ‘what makes a film good?’ But in the case of Green Book, the more fundamental question which needs to be asked before any consideration of whether it is a good film or even, in this case, the best film, is ‘what is the film?’ What are the parameters of the thing that is being assessed? Where does the film start and where does it finish? Is the film only the artefact itself, the 130 minutes that exists on the rolls of celluloid (let’s be real, it is on a hard drive), which starts with the first shot and finishes when the credits roll? Or is the film that artefact plus context? Is it that artefact and its relationship to, in the case of Green Book, the real historical events which it is describing? That artefact and its relationship to the current cultural and political landscape into which it is speaking? That artefact and its relationship, in the case of the Academy Awards, to the other films against which it is being measured? Because in the case of Green Book the difference between these two alternatives is significant.
If the film is just the artefact, then Green Book is a well made, delightful story of an unlikely friendship between two men who grow as human beings through the lessons they learn from each other as they share a unique and challenging experience. When the Copacabana closes for renovations, bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is left on the lookout for some short term work. He is contacted by a representative of concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). The Don Shirley Trio are about to set out on a two month tour of the deep south, and as a black man, Shirley is in need of a uniquely talented valet to help navigate the challenges of touring the Jim Crowe states (the film takes its title from ‘The Negro Motorists Green Book,’ an annual guidebook which outlined accommodation and services across the country that were friendly to African-American clientele). Tony has been recommended owing to his… resourcefulness, and while he is hardly progressive when it comes to his racial politics, the money is good so he takes the job.
These two unlikely travelling companions set out together. They are separated not only by race but by class. Tony is a hustler, unrefined, slovenly, but self-assured. Shirley has PhDs in psychology, music and the liturgical arts. He is cultured and aloof, but also lonely and isolated. In Tony, Shirley sees a man who doesn’t face the same barriers to exclusion that he does and is not making the most of his opportunities. In Shirley, Tony sees a man who is overburdened by the pressure to represent his people and try and change the world on his own, despite not being comfortable with who he is. On their journey they constantly challenge and surprise one another, each prompting growth and change. Director Peter Farrelly, who, as one half of the Farrelly Brothers, built his career on broad comedies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, proves adept at handling the buddy road movie dynamic, drawing the humour and pathos out of their burgeoning relationship, while also making those moments when we are confronted by the harsh injustices of the system land. He is helped by two very engaging performances. Mahershala Ali brings an interiority to Shirley’s dignified exterior. He will not allow himself to lash out, to express the anger and outrage that simmers beneath, because he does not believe he can change perceptions that way. Viggo Mortensen does not often do comedy but he earns laughs here with ease, while not undermining his dramatic arc.
The criticisms of Green Book, however, arise when we expand our focus to consider the film in context. In 2019, Green Book’s ‘if only we got to know each other we’d see that we can all get along’ take on race stands out as quaint in comparison to more nuanced and less comfortable takes in films like BlacKkKlansman and even Black Panther, both fellow Best Picture nominees. It was not lost on many that 29 years after the Academy overlooked Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing to award Best Picture to Driving Miss Daisy, they have once again overlooked Lee in favour of an altogether gentler take on race in a car. Green Book also treads perilously close to a white saviour narrative with Tony making decisions on Shirley’s behalf at key moments, while also teaching him the joys of fried chicken and soul music.
The film is, after all, told through Tony’s eyes. One of the screenwriters is Frank Vallelonga, son of the real Tony. So Green Book is an exploration of race from a white perspective. That is not, in and of itself a problem. Telling the story of a white man whose perspective on race is challenged as a result of a shared experience with a black man is perfectly valid. Where the film steps into shakier territory is when we get that black character, written by three white screenwriters, interrogating his own blackness, his own relationship to his ethnicity. The notion that Shirley felt any profound sense of estrangement from the black community has been outright rejected by his family. While it is not uncommon for artistic license to be exercised in films based on a true story – or as the posters for Green Book assert, based on “a true friendship” – at a time when the importance of authentic screen representation is a front of mind issue, the nature of this particular license is problematic.
On face value, Green Book is a crowd pleaser. A well crafted film built around engaging, well performed characters, its simple story of a friendship that breaks down barriers will keep you thoroughly entertained for the 130 minutes you spend with it. However, when you scratch the surface, things become more complicated. While for most films a Best Picture Oscar helps to build its legacy, for some it can serve as a millstone, a constant bone of contention which prevents the film from simply being appreciated for what it is, a very good film rather than a great one (see Shakespeare in Love). It could well be that Green Book will fall into the latter category, with the spotlight and scrutiny the Oscar win comes with not serving it well.
Review by Duncan McLean
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