African Americans in Green Book 2018
In one of the opening sequences of Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book,” Dolores (Linda Cardellini) offers two black plumbers glasses of water while they fix something in her kitchen. When her husband notices them in the sink, he throws them out without a second glance. This is Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a racist, cunning, wily bouncer hired to drive famed musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) while he tours across the Deep South. Based on a true story, Tony and Don’s ventures into the Deep South evoke a sort of “Driving Miss Daisy” in reverse that hinges on subverted tropes and flipped expectations: Don is black, wealthy, single, well-spoken, and dignified, while Tony is a white, roughhousing, inconsiderate, working class family man.
Green Book took home three Golden Globe Awards on Sunday for Best Comedy, Best Screenplay, and supporting actor Mahershala Ali — and that’s hardly a surprise. A period piece that’s also a road trip movie and a buddy dramedy? Based on a true story? With two strong performances and a heartwarming message about overcoming prejudice? That ends at a Christmas celebration? Sign America up (or at least the Hollywood Foreign Press Association). The film, directed by comedy veteran Peter Farrelly, stars Viggo Mortensen and Ali. It’s “inspired” by the true friendship of Tony Vallelonga, an Italian-American chauffeur/bodyguard from the Bronx, and Don Shirley, the black pianist Vallelonga is hired to drive and protect on a concert tour through the deep South in 1962. It’s often funny, with some poignant moments and a heart that feels like it’s in the right place. Yet curiously, the Green Book itself doesn’t play much of a role in the film. Mortensen’s character, Tony, takes it on the trip and leafs through it several times. Early on, he briefly explains its purpose to his wife Delores (Linda Cardellini): to provide black travelers with information about “safe” places to stay and to eat while they travel. He’ll need to refer to it to do his job, getting Shirley from gig to gig safely throughout the musician’s eight-week tour.
As can be seen, when the movie isn’t testing how comfortable its audience is with public racial discourse and racial humor, it presents a tender and enjoyable hunk of Oscar-bait. Tears will be shed, laughs will be had, and crowds will love it. The viewer might not always feel good about how those reactions are achieved; despite the overwhelming feel-goodness of the experience, you can see Green Book’s gears operating. It tackles important issues without revealing the vile extent of racial hatred that occurred in the south at this time. It bears a modern-day relevance that seems to address certain political leaders with hopeful lines like “dignity always prevails.” And it’s airy enough that the viewer leaves feeling unscathed, generally pleased by the experience, and with some basic notions about social justice to consider. Above all, Ali and Mortensen give layered performances that may exist in a conventional brand of Hollywood moviemaking about race, class, and identity, but nonetheless manage to engage the viewer for over two hours.