GREEN BOOK Review: 7 out of 10 (Just Your Friendly Racist Road Trip)
GREEN BOOK is the latest in the prescribed “based on a true story” film formula that soft pedals America’s history of racism by creating a palatable look back through rose colored cinematic glasses. And though that sounds like a criticism (it is) the film itself is entertaining in its own right. That is, assuming you want to see a lovable Italian racist who comes to terms with his own issues and a successful (but lonely) African American pianist who finds friendship in the most unlikely of places. In other words, an interracial buddy movie that is as trite as it can be—but that same tired film recipe is probably what makes it work. Like other films that have come before it like 42 and HIDDEN FIGURES, the film offers a lighter and easier look at past racial atrocities—and makes audiences feel better about how far we have come. Right? MAGA!
It isn’t just the feel-good formula that makes this film work. It is two pretty fantastic performances. The film takes place in the 1960s when African-American classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) asks Italian-American Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) to go on a tour with him through the Deep South and serve as Shirley's driver and bodyguard. Directed by Peter Farrelly (of the Farrelly Bros. duo), the movie plays more like a comedy than the trailer or marketing suggests. Mortensen’s Tony is practically a racist cartoon—a character that might have been an extra pulled out of a cheap gangster movie. Ali’s Dr. Shirley is an introverted and refined genius whose own limited experiences in the current social culture and climes have hampered his ability to be successful outside of his world of music. A crazy duo, right? The film essentially puts these two into increasingly tense and uncomfortable scenarios and conversations in an effort to deal with the ugly racial stereotypes of the era. Although GREEN BOOK is certainly trying to make some commentary on today’s racial climate, most of that is lost underneath the weight of racial humor mixed with heartwarming scenes of a growing friendship. Ali and Mortenson are two fantastic actors that make this film succeed more than it should. Put Michael Imperioli and Jamie Foxx in this same movie with the same script and directing and you have an infinitely worse movie. As it is, this film ends up just being #OscarBait.
GREEN BOOK also doesn’t really deal with its own namesake--The Negro Motorist Green Book. This was a publication that African-American travelers used to find motels and restaurants that would accept them during the Jim Crow era of this country. The film also skirts by the idea of Sundown Towns, a label used for whole communities that excluded people of non-white race using local laws, intimidation, and violence. (Fun fact: there are still communities that operate like this today.) A greater exploration of both of these parts of America’s racially divided history likely would have made this film a stronger and more dramatic project. It also might have made it less palatable. On the other hand, if audiences can watch a friendship blossom and overcome racism while teaching us more about hatred in America…I guess GREEN BOOK does its job.
But Hollywood—can we please stop making films where we make racism so damn entertaining?