Film Review – Green Book
Race relations have both come a long way and not come anywhere near far enough. There are practices that aren’t common or even legal anymore that used to show open hostilities to African Americans. Whether it was drinking from separate water fountains or not sitting in the same sections in restaurants or white people openly being comfortable with using racial slurs, none of that is deemed normally acceptable anymore. However, there are still fundamental misunderstandings and overt unfairness in society that is still very present. It’s sometimes a good reminder to see both how far we have and haven’t come. And in the new film Green Book we are faced with a lot of those very things.
It’s the 1960s. Kennedy is still President. A lot of the Civil Rights Movement hasn’t occurred yet. Viggo Mortensen stars as Tony Lip, a mid-level bouncer for some unsavory Gangster types at a nightclub in New Jersey. Tony is comfortable with violence when he has to be, but he isn’t eager to be too far into illicit gangland business. He’s a meathead, but he’s a caring family man with a devoted wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and kids at home. When the club closes down for renovations, he needs a temporary job. Hearing he is tough, he is offered a job to be a driver for two months for a renowned Doctor of Music and piano virtuoso who is doing a tour in the deep South. Mahershala Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley, a refined, classy, extremely proper black man who lives in a palatial apartment on the top floor of Carnegie Hall. Together in a somewhat reverse Driving Miss Daisy situation, they go on this road trip to Dr. Shirley’s many high end concert venues where they learn both tolerance and appreciation for each other.
The Green Book of the title refers to a guide book much like a AAA travel guide but specifically made for African American travelers to determine which hotels they are allowed to use on the road. It’s just one of many examples of segregation that were present at the time. The juxtaposition here is that Dr. Shirley was considered one of the finest musicians in the world. He is invited by the richest white people to play in palatial mansions or concert halls. Yet they also run into instances where he isn’t allowed to eat in the same restaurant that has white patrons of the concert that features him. Or one evening when he is invited to a dinner in his honor and they serve fried chicken and collard greens assuming that is the food of his people. This was based on a true story and it’s readily apparent that some of these incidents occurred in real life.
About 75% of this film is mostly the two main characters interacting. And with such talented actors at the helm, that is great company. Mortensen once again reminds us that he can be more than just Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings. His Tony Lip is fat, blunt, uncultured, and both smoke and eats too much. But his simplistic view of the world is entertaining and warm. When they get to Kentucky, he’s excited to get some KFC because it should be “fresher”. He also subverts expectations with the fact that he learns to be less prejudiced after getting to know his employer. Witnessing his piano playing and supreme artistry shows Tony that his is escorting a true talent. Meanwhile Ali provides another terrific performance. His character is stuck between two worlds. His talent lies in the world of “high” culture which in the 1960s was still the sole province of white people, so fellow African Americans couldn’t really relate to him. Meanwhile those same cultured elites didn’t see him as their equal. In a heartbreaking scene he asks Tony about this very issue and how will he solve his loneliness?
This movie isn’t perfect. Directory Peter Farrelly (yes, one of the brothers who brought us Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary) is a bit too obvious in his staging at times. For example, it’s infuriating when the score becomes overly treacly during an emotional scene to drive home the point that we are supposed to care. A movie should trust that the audience will get the emotion without having to be beaten over the head with it.
But for such a heavy subject, Green Book is charming, light on it’s feet, and at times goes in unexpected directions. It’s also a good reminder of how even though this happened over 50 years ago, some of these issues surrounding how minority talent is treated by the world that gets something from it is still relevant. For example, think of the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick. If you replaced Football for Piano and Sports for High Society, there isn’t a huge difference to what is happening today. This film is well acted and a fun watch.