Green Book

greenbookRather than being the 2,000th writer to tell you why you shouldn’t like Green Book, I’d like to try to get at what works in it and why its appeal may not necessarily be racist. Divorced from everything outside of itself, the movie is a buddy comedy with serious undertones — a fable, if you will, about the rough and uncultured white man whose eyes are opened via contact and eventual friendship with the smooth, elegant black man. This has been a trope at least since Sidney Poitier entered movies, and has turned up in one form or another every so often ever since. It’s the bedtime story white America tells itself in order to get to sleep despite its original sin of slavery. The thing is, Green Book might be more instructive as an example of why this story keeps being told than as a film in and of itself.

The basic thing to say is that if you don’t have Viggo Mortensen as the white man, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, and Mahershala Ali as the black man, renowned pianist Dr. Don Shirley, you don’t have a movie, or at least not this movie. Mortensen and Ali obviously feel this story needs telling, or they wouldn’t have done it, and they use every ounce of their charisma and sincerity as actors to try to put the material over. Mortensen is essentially playing an Italian stereotype (in contrast to the non-stereotypical black man Ali is playing), but he sneaks in little shades of tenderness and sometimes makes Tony seem as though he puts on his persona a little bit, to get along with his cronies outside the Copa. Putting on a dumb white face is something Tony can do out of privilege, and Mortensen knows this. Dr. Shirley doesn’t have a more socially acceptable face to put on — he’s black, he’s artsy, he’s gay. He goes into the world as himself 100 percent. His persona is not put on. Ali conveys this by delivering some of Dr. Shirley’s more condescending lines free of any pretension.

I got sort of lost in that performance aspect of the film, so whenever Green Book swerved into racial-awareness territory I sighed a little, as though reality, or a lamely realized version of it, were intruding on a perfectly decent acting two-hander. Dr. Shirley is going on a concert tour through the Deep South, in 1962, and he hires Tony to drive him and to act as a white buffer against the inevitable racism he will encounter, violent or otherwise. The movie is rated PG-13, and uses the N-word sparingly (there are Italian-language variations on it in the dialogue, like mulignan), so there’s a limit to how viscerally unpleasant the racism Shirley faces can get. Instead, the film’s most painful scene has Dr. Shirley excluded from the whites-only Birmingham dining room where Tony and his own bandmates are eating, and where Dr. Shirley will be expected to entertain. Dr. Shirley’s rich white audiences don’t deserve him. They applaud him but won’t eat with him. Tony the goombah eats with him, sleeps in the same room, and treats him like just another guy — more white privilege, since Dr. Shirley is Tony’s boss.

Contrary to the Academy’s assessment, I don’t think Green Book is the best picture of the year (not in a year when First Reformed came out). It’s not the worst, either (not in a year when Bohemian Rhapsody came out). I’m sure Universal felt it had an Oscar contender on its hands, and pushed it accordingly, but if this were a more obscure film with the same two performances its modest charms might be more apparent. Instead it became part of a larger story about how this sort of comforting bedtime tale, this brotherhood-of-man fable, doesn’t get it any more. It doesn’t, that’s true. It means well, but meaning well counts for nothing in art. What does count is the ability of Mortensen and Ali to invest their characters with as much truth as they can. Their work should be seen, even if it’s in a movie of the sort we’d thought, hoped, was extinct.

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