Film Review: Congenial “Green Book” Offers Simplistic Lessons in Racial Harmony

Film poster: “Green Book”

Green Book (Peter Farrelly, 2018) 2½ out of 4 stars.

In 1962, noted African American pianist Don Shirley decided to take a tour through the Jim Crow south, leaving behind the comfort of his spacious apartment above Carnegie Hall and the relative lack of overt racism directed at someone of his social status in New York City for the harsh realities of a land that viewed him as less than. Though sophisticated and highly educated (add a “Dr.” in front of the name, please), he felt he would need a more physically robust companion to guide him through the worst of it, and after making inquiries and interviewing a number of candidates, he settled on one Tony Vallelonga, also known as Tony Lip, a former night-club bouncer and chauffeur who could talk (or hit) his way out of any situation. The only problem was that Tony, himself, was a bit of a racist. Still, money is money, and with no other work in sight, and a family to feed, Tony took the job.

Now, 56 years later, after both men are dead, we have Green Book, from director Peter Farrelly (Hall Pass) – working without brother Bobby, for once – a pleasant heartwarmer of a traveling tale made with excellent intentions that mostly succeeds in its narrative goals, even if it oversimplifies some of the issues. Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) plays Don and Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) plays Tony; both together and separately they have charisma to spare. When first we meet Tony, he is in the middle of beating up an Italian mobster at a club, enjoying every second of every punch he throws. By contrast, in his own first scene, Don greets Tony while dressed in a silk robe and sitting on an African throne, just one of the many curios he has on display in his vast drawing room. The color of their skin is the least of their differences, and we are in for a pleasant-enough comedy of mismatched oddballs learning to get along.

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in GREEN BOOK ©Universal Pictures

This is both the strength and the weakness of the film. The rapport between Ali and Mortensen is written in such broad comedic strokes that it sets us up for an equally reductive view of the dangers once their concert tour heads into the Deep South. It’s not that Farrelly ignores the horrible apartheid of our nation’s racist past, but that the solutions to each predicament in which our friends find themselves always end up being just a little too easy. No doubt Farrelly wanted to keep his movie on a feel-good trip, with racial reconciliation and harmony as his main theme, but as a result we somehow always know it’s going to work out, thereby mitigating the risks. Still, the story is not without its scary parts, and its very title reminds us, constantly, of the nature of what these two faced. The “Negro Motorist Green Book,” which Don’s manager hands to Tony at the start of their road trip, was a guide to places where travelers of color were allowed to eat and sleep in southern states. It wasn’t until 1964 that the Civil Rights Act banned the segregation in hotels and restaurants that had required such a guide. That’s not so long ago, and by reminding us of our history, the film somewhat mitigates its oversimplification of the issues. Somewhat.

Beyond that, Green Book treats us to scene after scene of congenial moments as Don and Tony grow more comfortable with each other. Tony helps Don try fast food, appalled that he has never eaten fried chicken before (“Let’s have Kentucky Fried Chicken … in Kentucky!”), having assumed that, of course, all African Americans must eat the stuff. In the same way, he tunes “the Doc” (as he calls him) into the mainstream popular music of the era, struck, once more, that he has never listened to contemporary black rock performers like Little Richard (Don plays jazz and classical). For his part, Don suffers through Tony’s repulsive eating habits, trying to correct his driver’s coarse ways, but then offers substantive help by taking over Tony’s letters to his wife, played by Linda Cardellini (Return). Gradually, Tony’s aversion to driving a black man – which makes for a nice reverse image of the traditional chauffeur-client relationship, particularly down south – switches to respect, as he recognizes the very real qualities of the human being in front of him. Whatever its flaws as an exposé of the evils of our past (and not so past) – including the fact that the story is told from the perspective of the white character – Green Book offers sweet redemption and friendship as the ultimate cure for our sins, and that is no small thing, even couched in pablum like this.

Linda Cardellini and Viggo Mortensen in GREEN BOOK ©Universal Pictures

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic here at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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