There was nothing surprising about the announcement that Green Book had been awarded the Grolsch People’s Choice Award after its premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. First screening on September 13, days after most of the press had already left the city, Green Book came in under the radar as a sleeper hit. Despite taking a backseat to buzzier films like A Star Is Born, First Man, and Widows, the film managed to catapult itself into the awards season conversation by earning a distinction that matters; in the past decade, all but one film that has won the PCA has gone on to a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards. Three have won.
Despite its frustrating politics, Green Book is the type of film tailor-made to court awards consideration from an Academy that had to be shamed into diversifying its ranks. With its insistence on the pretense of loving our way into racial harmony, the movie exists almost exclusively to allow white moviegoers to nod sagely about “how far we’ve come” before calling the cops on their black neighbors for not waving hello.
On a purely technical level, Green Book is unimpeachable. Based on the true story of the cross country road trip and concert tour undertaken by Jamaican American classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) an Italian American bouncer, the movie aims to be a feel-good story about the healing power of friendship. Expertly and intentionally directed by Peter Farrelly (best known as a purveyor of “quirky, slightly offensive comedy”) and brilliantly acted by its leads, the film would be an Oscar contender by anyone’s measure on the strength of its bona fides alone
It’s not difficult to enjoy this movie. Farrelly’s experience in comedy comes through clearly in the pithy banter between the leads, doing a lot of the heavy lifting to sell this unlikely friendship. Mortensen and Ali are also intensely charismatic in their roles. They play the contrast between Lip’s working class vulgarity and Shirley’s hard won refinement against each other expertly, mining it for some of the film’s best moments and finding plenty of opportunities to showcase Ali’s distinctive laughter. An endearing plot point about Tony’s letters home to his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini, doing her best with yet another nothing role as the dutiful wife) injects genuine sentiment into what sometimes become grim proceedings.
One comes away understanding why this road trip was a transformative experience for both men. Their initial skepticism and scorn slowly give way to warmth and mutual respect, and the film demonstrates that shift in real time. The very best part of this movie is essentially the bromance.
But no matter which way you slice it, Green Book is a film about a racist white man making a black friend because he is suddenly given a financial stake in that man’s well-being, forcing his personhood into sharp relief. The movie is told from Lip’s perspective; and of the two men, he is the one given a grounding backstory, family who love him, and a past that gives him context. By the film’s end, we are meant to believe he has changed because he reprimands a family member for describing Shirley with a slur. Never mind that this gives us no indication as to whether his newfound racial tolerance extends past Shirley. Are we supposed to believe that Lip will now be more accepting of the black handymen whose used glasses he tossed into the trash at the start of the film? As with Amma Asante’s ill-considered Where Hands Touch, there is nothing redemptive about a “a one good negro” policy.
That, too, is a point of contention with the film. Don Shirley is depicted as an “exceptional black,” distinct from regular degular shmegular black people by virtue of his talent, education and refinement. He isn’t familiar with the popular “race music” of the time and has to be schooled in how to eat fried chicken by Vallelonga. (Yes, really.) There’s an extended sequence in which he laments, in the rain, that he will never find a place in society because he is shunned by other black people for being too fancy but is still considered the help by whites. Lip even insists that he is the blacker of the two because of his own working class background.
Shirley’s guiding ethos is an adherence to a repressive strain of respectability that many black people actively reject today. Intentional or not, by holding Shirley in high esteem without a meaningful examination of his character, the film creates a dichotomy wherein only “respectable blacks” deserve to have their personhood recognized. Shirley has done the work to prove he should be treated like a human being, but what about the black people who refuse to prostrate themselves for white acceptance? Have they then forfeited the right to be treated with decency? It’s a question the film never bothers to significantly contend with or even attempt to answer.
It’s a cheeky omission given that the film is named after The Negro Motorist Green Book, a Jim Crow era guidebook created to help African Americans safely navigate traveling in a segregated country. Despite its release during a time in which the Green Book has been reincarnated in a new form to address our “post-racial” problems, the film’s sole significant black character is simply the catalyst for the white lead’s implied revelations around race. A film named for a text that addressed a specifically black problem will be centering its awards campaign around its white star.
Earlier this month, at a Q+A session following a screening of the film in Los Angeles, Mortensen caused a stir by saying “nigger” in what he claims was an attempt to demonstrate that “discrimination evolves and changes its vocabulary, and that we must always be vigilant.” As the story filtered online, he issued a statement and an apology. But truthfully, it’s difficult to get worked up over the incident because it’s so roundly indicative of the remove at which white audiences will engage with this film; Tony Lip using slurs onscreen is hilarious, but Mortensen using slurs in real life is a scandal. Frankly, it’s tempting to take bets on how long it will be before Mahershala Ali follows in Viola Davis’ footsteps. Even Mortensen’s statement betrays the real purpose of the film: “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Don saves Tony’s soul.” Isn’t it wonderful that black suffering helps white people gain entry into heaven’s pearly gates?
One could argue that being based on real people, the film is limited by history in the liberties it can take with the story. But given that the film is co-written by Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga, it becomes clearer why the film skews in the direction of dismissing Lip’s racism for the feel-good narrative of a deeply-bonded interracial friendship. In trying to both tout and preserve his father’s legacy, Vallelonga reveals the intrinsic problem with “race movies” like these: they are always, always, always about letting white people off the hook for their individual roles in perpetuating institutional harms.
At the end of the film, as Lip and Shirley are on their way back to New York just in time for Christmas, they are pulled over by a police officer. A previous bad incident earlier in the film has them both on edge, but it turns out they have nothing to fear. The cop just noticed that their tire was flat and wanted to make sure they would be driving safely on roads still slick with fresh snowfall. They change the tire, thank the officer, and head home. On its own, it’s a nothing scene, but in a film expressly about confronting America’s thorny history of race relations released during a year that has seen ever increasing scrutiny on police violence against black people, it acts as a revision of sorts, a “fine people on both sides” narrative quid pro quo that insists on making space for good whites in a racist world that makes no such concessions for its victims. After all, isn’t that the point of a story like this?
Green Book hits theaters nationwide on Friday, November 16.
Cate Young (@battymamzelle): smugsexual, thundercunt hagbeast.