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Who Was Green Book For?

Photo: Dreamworks

Do American audiences still want a movie like Green Book? To many, the answer seemed obvious back in September, when, following its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Peter Farrelly’s odd-couple seriocomedy won the Audience Award and was deemed an Oscar front-runner by the small set of prognosticators who are now the first line of assessment when it comes to fall contenders. The fact-based story, about Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black pianist, and his white driver Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (60-year-old Viggo Mortensen, an odd fit for a character who was 32 at the time) bonding on a southern concert tour in the racist South of 1962, offered life lessons, learning arcs, feel-good moments, and a happy ending. It might not charm all critics, the early thinking went, but it was clearly going to be a crowd-pleaser.

Two weeks ago, the movie arrived. The crowds did not. Following a disappointing opening on 25 screens, Green Book expanded to 1,000 for Thanksgiving weekend and finished a somewhat wan ninth. According to IndieWire box-office analyst Tom Brueggemann, its cumulative gross of under $8 million makes it “a work in progress, with a struggle ahead.” That struggle may offer a lesson that after 50 years, a particular kind of movie about black and white America has, at long last, run its course.

To understand why, it’s necessary to take a closer look at Green Book’s strategic and timeworn take on racism — a “we all have something to learn” approach that, on paper, may mark it as both a reaction to the polarization of the Trump era and a symptom of the both-sides-ism that often defines it. Tony is a tough working-class-Italian family man who applies for a job driving Don Shirley through the South. That might be a reasonable setup through which to explore some of the, what’s it called again, “anxiety” that many white people felt when Obama was elected, except that the movie stacks the deck against Don from the first time we meet him. Chilly, aloof, and so refined that he literally lives above Carnegie Hall, Don conducts Tony’s job interview in gold raiment, sitting on a thronelike chair on a raised platform. So tense he cannot smile, so stiff that he barely permits himself to use contractions, Don is an emperor, albeit of a kingdom of two (he has a manservant).

Another movie might have explored Don’s costumed hauteur from within, understanding it as a defense, a calculation, even a performance. (The real Shirley was also a psychologist, a fact about which Green Book expresses virtually no interest.) But this film uses his remoteness geometrically; it’s one point on a triangle, exactly as far from the apex that represents a warm and human ideal as the other point — Tony’s unregenerate coarseness and frank racism — is. Green Book sometimes feels less imagined than measured with a protractor. Tony needs to stop referring to black people as “jungle bunnies,” but also Don needs to stop saying highfalutin things like, “It is my feeling that your diction, however charming it may be in the tristate area, could use some finessing.” Tony needs to broaden his horizons and learn how to write his wife a nice letter (he ends up taking dictation, Cyrano-style, from Don, who naturally has nobody to write nice letters to), but also Don needs to learn to enjoy fried chicken and Aretha Franklin and be more comfortable in his skin. Tony needs to grow up (because racism is, in movies like Green Book, primarily a sign of immaturity), but also Don needs to loosen up; he’s so constricted that he owns a chess set with only white pieces! Tony needs to get a little smarter, but also Don is too smart, like Obama was. “It don’t look fun to be that smart,” Tony — so unrefined yet so observant about deeper truths! — writes home. (Don didn’t need to help him with that sentence.)

Green Book is a but also movie, a both sides movie, and in that, it extends a 50-year-plus tradition of movies that tell a story about American racism that has always been irresistibly appealing, on and offscreen, to that portion of white Americans who see themselves as mediators. They’re the reasonable, non-racist people poised halfway between unrepentant, ineducable racists on one side and, on the other, black people who, in this version of the American narrative, almost always have something to learn themselves. The trope was first, most famously and most effectively, deployed in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, in which the redneck cop played by Rod Steiger has much to learn from the intellectually superior Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), but also something to teach him about not letting anger or a desire for vengeance cloud his judgment. Norman Jewison, that film’s director, knew that that brief comeuppance for Poitier was the spoonful of sugar that would make the medicine of an authoritative black man onscreen palatable to an audience that had almost never seen one depicted before. Fifty years ago, the film was a galvanizing moment in Hollywood history in part because it played wildly differently to black and white, to southern and northern, and to older and younger moviegoers. But while crowds cheered Poitier fighting back, Hollywood gave Steiger the Oscar; for the Academy, it was the white character’s journey, and his humanity, in which the stakes of the film resided.

The character Mortensen plays in Green Book takes that same journey, in that familiar way. (Accordingly, Mortensen is being given a Best Actor campaign, while his co-star Ali, whose job in the film is to assist him in his evolution while benefiting from his salt-of-the-earth common sense, will be pushed for Supporting Actor.) Tony learns to stop being a racist by two means that haven’t changed a bit in the decades since In the Heat of the Night set them up: He decides to make an exception for someone exceptional (Don’s talent as a musician helps the scales fall from his eyes), and once he does so, he learns to feel revulsion at, you know, the bad kind of racist — the kind that won’t sell you a suit or that makes you use an outhouse or that wants to beat you to death. And he proves himself capable of change by pulling the delicate, almost alien creature in his charge out of one jam after another, becoming the film’s white (and, in a notably under-explored twist, straight) savior.

This character type has been so irresistible to some white moviegoers for half a century that it’s little wonder Green Book’s distributor Universal assumed it would work again. A white main character in a story about racism can himself be racist (as Steiger’s character is in Heat of the Night) or old-school and gruff (as Gene Hackman’s ex-sheriff is in 1988’s Mississippi Burning) or prone to making offensive jokes (as Jeff Bridges’s lawman does in 2016’s Hell or High Water) as long as fundamentally he’s a good guy. And there’s just as long a tradition, from the television series I Spy (which premiered just a few years after Green Book is set) to 48 Hrs. and beyond, of black-white partnership comedies in which the two heroes need each other to be complete.

Green Book knows all this. It alternates big-picture oblivion with aching self-consciousness. It asterisks and footnotes itself obsessively, like a problematic tweet preceded by five tweets trying to anticipate objections to it. A scene in which Tony and Don drive down a road to see silent, onlooking sharecroppers tilling a field has an exact antecedent in In the Heat of the Night. Another, in which Tony insists on pulling over because he needs to use the bathroom, replays in intentionally more vulgar terms a famous scene in Driving Miss Daisy in order to remind you that a white driver could put his need in terms that a black driver wouldn’t have dared. The film even has Don explain to Tony, “You only win when you maintain your dignity” — a word and idea everyone involved has to know has a stunningly loaded racial history, one that defined and constricted much of Poitier’s career.

What Green Book may not know is who it’s for. The portion of the white moviegoing audience that needs to be handled with this much care and flattery is getting smaller every year, and the nonwhite audience, at this point, seems justifiably wary of buying a version of someone else’s fantasy that it has been sold many, many times before; besides, it has other options. Underlying the bet that Green Book would be a crowd-pleaser is a long-outdated presupposition about the composition of the crowd — a belief that racism can only be explained to white audiences via a white character, and a concurrent belief that those white audiences are pivotal to the success of any movie. But they’re not. This weekend, two movies directed by black men, Creed II and Widows, made the top ten and handily outgrossed Green Book. While that’s not a common occurrence, it’s no longer a headline-worthy exception — and in a year that also includes Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, and (shortly) Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, moviegoers in search of black characters no longer need to look over the shoulder of a white director or co-star in order to find them. One might look at these movies as among the first to belong to a post–Get Out era, in which audiences want their views of race in America served up with slyness and/or dystopic skepticism rather than inspirational teachable moments. But even a historical drama by a white director that trafficked in exactly those moments, 2016’s Hidden Figures, did so by centering three women of color without a white character to explain “them” to a presumed white “us” (or, worse, explain them to themselves). It grossed $169 million in the U.S., a figure Green Book is unlikely to come anywhere near.

None of this means that Green Book’s Oscar campaign has derailed. Mortensen and Ali lean into their carefully diagrammed characters with everything they’ve got, and an A+ CinemaScore suggests that their audience (at least the primarily older, largely white audience that showed up) is loving what it sees. The precedent the studio is hoping applies is last year’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which made more than half its money after its ninth week of release and earned Academy Awards for Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. There were loud critical complaints that in Three Billboards, the black characters were plot devices, abstractions designed to facilitate the growth curve of the white protagonists. That didn’t matter to Academy voters, nor will it matter to some of them that Green Book is a movie that could have been made 30 years ago. But Academy voters themselves, almost 30 percent of whom have joined only in the last four years, are changing, too, so who knows? It used to be a certainty that you’d never go broke selling white people stories of their own redemption — and that may still be true. But in 2018, it suddenly seems possible that you’ll never get rich that way either.

Who Was Green Book For?