This year’s controversial Best Picture choice, Green Book is a film that should have been released between 1990-2005. If it had, we’d probably look back at it fondly, not wondering why the academy, when presented with a much better story of racial strife (BlacKkKlansman), chose the least challenging of the two. Far from a bad film, Green Book nevertheless has to be judged by its choices and the time period it was released in.
Green Book is the “true” story of Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), a well-respected musician, embarking upon a tour of the south in a time where colored people were … let’s just say ‘less than full citizens’. To help with the tour, he employs a local New York tough guy, Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Mortensen) who, despite being a racist, isn’t as racist as the deep south, as a driver/bouncer for the tour. On the journey they learn from each other and become friends, despite their vast educational differences. And Tony’s racism.
Let’s get this out of the way. Green Book is not a bad movie per se. The lead characters are charming. Their dialogue is a witty banter. The actors are both amazing. The film is well-paced and designed to make you, the audience, feel good in the end. And the ultimate message, racism is bad, is obviously a good one. I enjoyed watching it, I’m sure many of you will too. It’s just that we’ve seen too many of this kind of movie. White man’s redemption arc where he learns that his black compatriot is not only human, but has dreams and hopes just like the white man. That’s where the movie falls afoul.
It’s not surprising. The movie is based off of Vallelonga’s story, which he told to his son, one of the writer’s of the film. Which means the focus is on him and not where it should have been: on Shirley. I can say this without reservation, Shirley does not get a character arc. He does not learn anything, he is a piece of Tony’s learning. And this shift of focus does the whole story a huge disservice. Because it is about winning over hearts and minds of an entire region and instead comes down to one man. It makes Shirley little more than a prop in what should be his story.
Which sucks because there is another good message in the film. It’s not only that racism is bad, it’s the method it shows its badness. Tony doesn’t just realize that black people are just like him. Shirley unwittingly shows him that despite his expensive upbringing, his incredible knowledge of music and language, he is still lower in the eyes of his fellow man than a poor Italian. Just because of the color of his skin. It’s a complaint we see time and time again against things like affirmative action, well I’m white and I’m still poor, what is this advantage you speak of that I get that black people don’t get? Because I don’t see it. You don’t see it because you don’t see the disadvantage. Tony clearly and forcefully sees the disadvantage, especially when he strikes a cop for calling him only “half a nigger.” I nearly cheered when Shirley yelled at him for taking offense at just that. He gets called that every day, but he doesn’t go around punching people. And if he punched a cop? You bet there’d be serious, serious complications. Add in the fact that he’s also gay, and you have a thousand more hurdles to clear just to stay in the race.
But I think we can all agree that fried chicken scene was some dumb shit. How the hell did that pass muster? They freakin put it in the trailer.
Best Picture worthy? No. A safe, safe choice? Yes. And the safe choice is never the good choice.
2.5 out of 4 stars