Published on February 25th, 2019 | by Thomas Weinmaster0
So, is Green Book Best Picture worthy? A shameful rewriting of history? Or a nice little movie that wandered into the mire of public controversy?
I think I might be a bit late to this party. Green Book walked away with the top award at the Oscars recently, and now I’m going to review it? What’s the point? Well, in my defense, I just saw the movie for the first time on the day of the Oscars’ broadcast, and I frankly didn’t think it would win Best Picture. I was hoping to frame this review as a defence of a good movie that will fade into Oscar nominee purgatory, whereas now I’m arguing for the existence of my thoroughly rutted take on a celebrated film. “Why don’t you just skip the puppet show and review Citizen Kane?” you might ask. Well, don’t give me any ideas. However, in the immediate wake of the Oscars, the tide of public opinion has begun to turn against the movie, so maybe my initial thesis was not so far off. Green Book is a feel-good movie with some tremendous performances, but its light touch and message make it a tougher pill to swallow as Best Picture.
By now you probably know the story, but I’ll highlight the main beats here. In the early 1960s, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a typical blue-collar Italian guy working as a bouncer at the Copacabana in New York City. When the Copa closes for repairs, Tony is left without a way to provide for his struggling family. As their financial situation approaches disaster, he is hired as a driver and bodyguard by Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a well-heeled African American classical and jazz pianist. Shirley is touring his way through the Southern U.S.: a region still desperately clinging to Jim Crow-era racist policies. Vallelonga is meant to drive him from gig to gig and keep him safe along the way in hostile territory.
The dispositions of the two characters could not be more opposite. Shirley is uptight and obsessed with etiquette, to the point of being abrasive. Tony is hard-nosed and boorish, having grown up doing whatever it took to survive. It is the interplay between these two that makes the film. The growth of their awkward friendship is a joy to watch; Vallelonga’s xenophobia and Shirley’s classicism both erode as they travel further and further into hostile territory. There are many amusing scenes, highlights of which include Don repeatedly trying to help the semi-literate Tony write love letters home to his wife.
The whole affair has a very light touch, despite the weighty setting. It’s first and foremost a film about friendship between opposite people, with darker moments sprinkled throughout. The contrast of the suited and starched Shirley standing next to the car, while African-American workers do backbreaking labour in a field across the way is stark. Truthfully though (and likely intentionally), the movie avoids most of the tougher questions. The roots of racism are not explored in any meaningful way. A lot of deep-rooted prejudices that would have existed are hand-waved away in service of a road movie with an unlikely pairing of characters.
Green Book is not a technical masterpiece by any means, either. It does not build its stakes on visuals and sound. Instead, it trades in emotion and relationship building. Though director Peter Farrelly seems to have a firm grip on tone, he does relatively little to distinguish the film from a technical standpoint. The only exception I could spot is the use of colour, which is well deployed to differentiate the glamorous lives of Southern whites, while dingier, washed out tones abound in the often abhorrent “Colored Only” areas. It’s all in service of one larger point the film does try to make, which is to distinguish the clean and polished but ultimately hollow existence of the white upper class, who are for the most part willfully ignorant of the plight of African Americans. The banality of evil.
While visual and audial thrills are not its strong suit, this is a movie carried on the strength of performances. Viggo Mortensen is an absolute joy to watch in the film. His portrayal of the deeply flawed, but lovable Tony is quite complex. Tony is a meathead, but he has a big heart despite his prejudices, and quickly grows disgusted with the treatment Shirley endures along the journey. Mortensen injects what could have been a caricature with real life and complexity, showing the audience a real man with conflicting ideologies changing through experience.
Mahershala Ali comes almost needing no introduction at this point, but his portrayal of Shirley shows a great deal of restraint. He is a very conflicted character, as his affluence and obsession with protocol have resulted in him being alienated from a majority of other African Americans, many of whom understandably resent him for his courting of a white upper class who refuse to acknowledge him as an equal. His evolution as a character is tremendously well realized, and it should be no surprise he went home with the Best Supporting Actor statue. His on-screen performances are now firmly in must-watch territory.
I really enjoyed Green Book for what it was: a mostly light, airy, feelgood picture with some tremendous performances by two of the best actors working today. And in any other scenario, that would likely be just fine. But now it’s won Best Picture, which opens up the film to new audiences, and new criticism, much of which it would never have received if it remained a runner-up for all time. I believe that’s a bit of a shame, because I had a really good time with it. However, as a white person, I will not attempt to correct the record for people of colour who are finding issue with the movie. It is a construction of a white man’s view of racism (Vallelonga’s son wrote the movie, and was directed by a white man), and it does trade a bit in the “white saviour” narrative, though less than you might expect.
So the question is: should you see Green Book? I’m still going to say yes. But don’t expect of it more than it is. This is about two people coming together and not a larger exploration of race and racism in America. If that’s what you are looking for, there are a number of better movies from 2018 (BlacKkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting). This doesn’t mean you should shut your brain off while watching Green Book, nor that you should ignore the problematic elements in play. We should always be vigilant for these things, but Green Book carries no malice in its heart, and I’m willing to bet you’ll leave smiling, even if it’s nowhere near the best movie you’ve seen all year.