Did you know that racism was bad? It was. There you go, I’ve summarized Green Book for you. You’re welcome!
I’m massively simplifying things because that’s sometimes how Green Book itself operates, so why not meet the film at its wavelength? The 1960s were a tough time, but everything is OK now, and for every bad white person there was a good white person and for every good black person there was a bad black person. That’s how it worked! Everything evened out in the end and it was all fine. This is the general gist of Green Book, an acceptably made film that somehow underuses both Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, a movie often more interested in how much Viggo’s character can eat (the man folds an ENTIRE PIZZA in half and starts eating it like a gigantic wrap sandwich!) than in the book it is actually named after.
That dissonance permeates throughout all of Green Book, which is sort of a comedy, sort of a drama, probably your grandparents’ movie pick this Thanksgiving, and the kind of film that white people will walk out of feeling like they’ve been patted on the back. If you’re a character who uses the n-word maliciously in Green Book, you’re a real racist; otherwise, whatever prejudices or stereotypes you hold may not be that bad. So you’re an Italian man who calls black people “eggplants” and assumes that they’re going to rape your daughter. You can be redeemed! So you’re a white Southern cop who stands by while your racist partner intimidates an innocent black man. You can be redeemed! All of these allowances are made for white characters who might be racist in a film that gives only one black character any real depth.
Green Book is told squarely from the point of view of Italian-American Tony Vallelonga (Mortensen), a brawler and a bruiser who has bounced from job to job over the years—driving garbage trucks, tossing men out of clubs, often using his fists (which he’s good with) instead of his words (with which he struggles). The year is 1962, Tony is living with his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and two sons in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, and he receives an unexpected job opportunity: a doctor needs a driver.
Tony makes his way to the address, which ends up being Carnegie Hall, and up the stairs to the apartment above the legendary concert space, where his future employer lives: Dr. Donald Shirley (Ali), a man who sits upon a throne, surrounded by international artifacts and treasures, dressed in a flowing African-inspired gold and crème robe, with pendants and charms layered upon his chest. He is an impressive, alluring figure, and he is going on a concert tour of the Deep South, and he needs someone like Tony Lip to protect him. Dr. Shirley is an unparalleled pianist and the leader of the Don Shirley Trio, fastidious and precise and articulate, and if Tony can deliver him to each concert on time and unharmed, he’ll be paid a pretty sum upon his return to New York City.
Tony takes the job, and what awaits him is eight weeks on the road driving Dr. Shirley into progressively more (openly) racist parts of the South. A representative from the record company gives Tony The Negro Motorist Green Book, the guidebook published from the 1930s to 1960s by black people for black people to travel “without aggravation,” and he peruses it infrequently to get a feeling for the places they’re going and the people they’re meeting. What is more primary in Green Book than the titular text itself is the relationship between Tony and Dr. Shirley that develops in that car, the white man driving the black man, and how they each bring their years of history to a relationship that is initially tense and fraught but that softens and warms over time.
Well, when I say “years of history,” I suppose it’s incorrect to imply that Dr. Shirley gets the same treatment as Tony. This is a story about how Tony learned not to be racist and also how he taught Dr. Shirley to be more black. He instructs Dr. Shirley on how to eat fried chicken for the first time, a scene that gets some laughs when Dr. Shirley commands Tony not to litter, but the moment turns sour when later in the film, while seated for a meal in an old plantation house, the host announces that he asked his black staff what Dr. Shirley would like to eat, and of course they made fried chicken, and Tony looks triumphant while Dr. Shirley looks understandably uncomfortable. Tony introduces Dr. Shirley to the music of Little Richard and Aretha Franklin and Chubby Checker and Sam Cooke. He encourages Dr. Shirley to stand up for himself to racist white people—well, white people more racist than Tony himself is, because Tony still uses a racist slur in describing an Asian man and still treats the brown man who works for Dr. Shirley (Iqbal Theba!) like absolute shit. These are actual lines of dialogue this movie has Tony say: “I’m blacker than you are. You don’t know shit about your own people. … I live on the streets. You sit on a throne. So yeah, my world is way more blacker than yours.”
Dr. Shirley goes on to refute that during a scene where he and Tony yell at each other in the rain for DRAMA, but I’m not sure the movie actually disagrees with Tony, not when the story is so fully from his perspective. (There are absolutely links to explore between race and class, but the movie doesn’t handle them particularly thoughtfully.) And I guess I don’t understand that choice when Dr. Shirley is so much more compelling, a black man unparalleled in his skill and his craft, alone in the world, with no family and barely any friends, who is certain of his ability but afraid of opening himself up to people, who can’t get through the night without a bottle of booze, who couldn’t handle being a husband and who uses language as a weapon, and who maintains an air of dignity, elegance, and sophistication throughout. Why the hell wouldn’t you tell this movie from his point of view, when you have Oscar winner Mahershala fucking Ali?
Of course Ali is great, and of course Mortensen is great, and of course they have solid chemistry together; the self-assuredness of Dr. Shirley effectively counters the prodigious appetites of Tony Lip. There’s a meaningful scene when their car breaks down near a field where a group of black farmhands (amazed at a white employee and a black boss) and Dr. Shirley (aware that his life could have been very different) share equally taken-aback looks, and another moment late in the film when Mortensen trails behind Ali as a protector figure and clasps his hand together in a way that immediately evoked his character in Eastern Promises. The two are in a black blues club, and Ali’s Dr. Shirley plays his heart out, enthralling the crowd and improvising with the band, and it’s supposed to be the film’s most energetic moment, it’s most thrilling. It is. But then what follows is what you would expect from the kind of movie that, well, your grandparents would like—Tony asks one of his relatives not to call Dr. Shirley a racist slur (what a hero!) and Dr. Shirley realizes that he’s lonely (of course!) and so they come together to celebrate Christmas, their friendship cemented, to continue on for decades to come.
I appreciate that these two men had a friendship in real life, and yeah, I laughed whenever Mortensen’s Tony ate another absurd meal (his letters home to Dolores are primarily just lists of what he consumed), and Ali plays Shirley as alternately regal, imperious, fragile, and lovely. But how many more movies—more holiday-themed movies, ostensibly the most impactful and important cinema season of the year—must we sit through where the narrative arc is “White people learn racism is bad”? It’s depressing and surreal that we have literal KKK members, Nazis, and fascists marching in our streets, proliferating throughout our government, and taking over our national discourse, and yet the strongest message a movie like Green Book, a major awards contender, can offer up is, “Hey, don’t do that!” Green Book feels like a movie lost in time, and we have to do better. We demand better.
Image sources (in order of posting): Universal Pictures/Green Book, Universal Pictures/Green Book, Universal Pictures/Green Book, Universal Pictures/Green Book