Green Book tells the true story of an Italian-American bouncer, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) who is hired in the early 1960s to be a chauffeur/bodyguard to Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an African-American concert pianist planning a tour of the deep south.
Almost immediately after the film’s release came the controversies. Moviegoers seemed unable to agree on whether the depictions of race and racism were satisfactory. The family of Don Shirley spoke out against the movie saying, among other things that the assertion that Shirley was isolated from the black community was untrue and that he and Vallelonga were never friends. Then there was the mess with Mortensen using the n-word. He was trying to make a (misguided) point but I really don’t know why he thought that was going to go off well. Ali publicly forgave him but it definitely brought some bad publicity to a film already struggling with publicity issues.
I am of two minds about this film: I thought it was entertaining, mostly carried by the incredible performances of its two stars, and that a lot of the criticisms are on-point: the racism narrative is too clean and made specifically to be easily digestible for white people.
This is a movie that could have easily been very bad. What makes it not bad is, primarily, the charm of Ali and Mortensen. These are A1 actors who could probably make the simplest children’s book compelling. Their on-screen chemistry makes them come across as genuine, complicated men who are also touchingly vulnerable.
This is also the kind of movie that white people love to feel good about. The standard stereotypes are flipped here: it is the white character who is uncultured, whose English is rough, and who enjoys the baser things in life. The black character is sophisticated, has refined tastes, and wants to teach his white counterpart how to behave better. Of course, this creates the opportunity for a lot of comedy (and really, there are a lot of funny parts); it also means white people get to not feel guilty.
We are encouraged to feel enraged as Shirley encounters the ugly racism of the Deep South, where he is frequently barred from inhabiting the same spaces as whites. Vallelonga is bewildered by this racism but he has deeply held racist beliefs himself because most mainstream stories about race involve a white person getting taught by a black person how not to be racist. Green Book is no exception.
Although I enjoyed Green Book what frustrated me the most was the very end, once Shirley and Vallelonga are back in New York after a treacherous drive through the snow to make it back in time for Christmas. As Vallelonga dines with his stereotypically boisterous (and blatantly racist) Italian-American family, he is quiet, clearly feeling sad that his new friend is spending Christmas alone. But then, a lonely Don Shirley shows up at his doorstep with a bottle of wine and after a second or two of awkward silence the family welcomes him with open arms and like a Christmas miracle, their virulent racism is cured.
The message seemed to be that most white people aren’t really bad, they just need someone they trust to be cool with a black person, then they’re not racist anymore. As if it were that easy. It seemed to me too neat a bow to tie on such a messy, ugly subject and an obvious attempt to recenter white people in a good light after showing most white people as bigots throughout the film.
I think Green Book has a decent chance at winning the Oscar because I can imagine the Academy thinking this will show that they are woke. I doubt Mortensen will beat Christian Bale for best actor, but my money is definitely on Ali winning in the best supporting actor category.
What to make: There’s fried chicken because of course there is. The dish plays a pivotal role in the relationship between the two men when Vallelonga delightedly digs into a bucket of KFC and coaxes Shirley into trying some (after expressing some confusion that he had never tried it because he thinks all black people eat and love fried chicken). Of course, because fried chicken is delicious, Shirley likes it and it’s the first bonding moment between them. The dish is sort of presented as a great equalizer, because, regardless of race, everyone loves fried chicken.
Meat-eaters will probably be happy to see fried chicken at a party (I know I would be) and it can be a great conversation starter about whether this film, written and directed by all white people, does a good job in talking about racism. Especially when they keep bringing up fried chicken.