Unemployed after his nightclub shuts down, abrasive bouncer Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) needs a job fast. Approached be a driver for very cultured, black pianist “Doc” Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), Frank is unsure about accepting. A hazardous eight week piano tour through America’s racist southern states won’t be easy, however Shirley convinces him to take the job. As both men leave the safer climes of New York, neither will ever return the same.
It’s important to judge the film for what it is, not what it could have been or wasn’t for some…
Known more for his risqué comedies than his dramas, director John Farrelly seems an odd choice for a racial drama set in 1960’s America. Taking on a real-life event as the inspiration his ‘Green Book’, the result has drawn as much criticism as praise.
In ostensibly what feels like a reversal of ‘Driving Miss Daisy’, two dysfunctional characters are confined to a car which traverses both America and its shameful race history. As driver Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, Viggo Mortensen piles on the pounds on to play an Italian-American heavy who wouldn’t be out of the place in a Scorsese movie. Whilst his casting and characterisation might feel a bit self-conscious, ever-the-professional Mortensen manages to disappear inside his character in the later acts. However Mahershala Ali’s “Doc” Don Shirley provides the class that both his character and ‘Green Book’ so desperately needs. Refined as much as he is repressed, his Don Shirley is a stranger in every situation. Divorced from his ethnicity and both fêted and ostracised by his intended audience, Ali’s performance is the stuff of Oscar nominations.
So, whilst the injustices of America’s slavery past are never fully acknowledged in this movie, it begs the question whether this was ever the vehicle to do it? With the film becoming a dartboard for hostile articles and Twitter diatribes, it’s important to judge the film for what it is, not what it could have been or what it wasn’t for some sections of the audience.
America has a difficult relationship with its past. Similarly exaggerated and exorcised by the same Hollywood machine, its depictions of race have historically leant towards the simplistic and just plain misleading. So where does ‘Green Book’ feature on the current barometer of change? Broken down into its constituent parts, it is a movie about racism made by white filmmakers for what feels like a primarily white audience. Whenever Shirley gets in trouble, its Frank’s Italian-American brawn that saves them both – and whilst that might be historically accurate in terms of the men’s relationship – it also adheres to a much maligned subtext.
Taken on its own simplistic terms ‘Green Book’ is an enjoyable movie with two actors doing fine work. In its allusion to a future reconciliation between those who have been oppressed and their historical oppressors, it sadly falls short of the greatness it aspires to. That said, it is another movie that does represent and also tries to point itself in the right direction – if not wholly sure about how to get there.