Photo: Universal Pictures
Over the last decade, both black and white filmmakers have portrayed the history of racism in ways that some mainstream, white audiences have found too confrontational, even sadistic. Perhaps that’s why there’s so much love for Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, which set a slew of tedious awards prognosticators buzzing after festival screenings in Toronto, where it won the Audience Favorite prize. After abrasive hits like Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Lee Daniels’s The Butler (as well as flops like Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit), the thinking is that audiences will be in the mood for a warmhearted, mismatched-buddy, racial-bonding drama-comedy that spoon-feeds you everything and goes down real easy.
The premise — inspired by a true story — is pleasantly simpleminded.
Viggo Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, a.k.a. Tony Lip, a semi-literate racist on hiatus from a security job at the Copa who takes a job chauffeuring a prim black art-jazz pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), on a concert tour that includes the Deep South. It’s 1962, and while cultured white audience in places like New Orleans and Memphis greet Shirley with enthusiasm (black folks aren’t conspicuous in his audiences), life is less simple offstage, away from his Steinway.
The Green Book is the name of a guide for “Negro travelers” who need to know where they can eat and sleep without getting turned away — or, worse, beaten up or killed. Shirley is edgy, though. An aesthete with immaculate diction, he feels at home with neither blacks nor whites, and his loneliness propels him toward places where “his kind” shouldn’t go. Tony has to chase after him to protect him from both racist ruffians and equally racist cops — an unaccustomed role for the Italian-American bouncer, whom we’ve seen trash two glasses from which black maintenance workers drank in his apartment. (His non-racist wife, Dolores, played with exquisite restraint by Linda Cardellini, shakes her head wearily and removes the glasses from the garbage.) Driving Dr. Shirley changes Tony, though. He winces in indignation when a custodian calls Shirley a “coon” and adds that Italians have a lot in common with blacks. Out come Tony’s fists, and the audience buzzes with approval.
Farrelly is best known for low-brow comedies I happen to adore, like Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and Shallow Hal, all made with his brother, Bobby. Although audiences and critics have tended to shrug off the Farrelly brothers as a downscale, smutty-adolescent version of the Coens, their movies have a strong humanist bent. Every film features parts for the disabled, who get their share of laughs. The extras are family and friends. But moving into awards-bait mode, Farrelly must have sensed that the key to winning a mainstream audience’s heart is to look as if you’re inverting stereotypes while you’re actually affirming them. Thus, Greaseball Tony teaches the Uppity Shirley to eat fried chicken and listen to Little Richard, while Shirley helps Tony write flowery letters to Dolores.
On paper it sounds cringeworthy, but much of it is great fun. Mortensen is cartoonish in the most marvelous way. It helps that he’s not Italian — his father is Danish — and so the hackneyed, bada-bing diction isn’t second nature to him. (The supporting cast is rife with summer-stock Sopranos.) Mortensen physicalizes everything, smiling wide and jiggling his head and leading with his big gut, which he acquired for the role. The more animated he is, the stiller Ali becomes and vice versa. They make beautiful silly music together. Ali brings dignity to Shirley, but it’s not the boring kind. It’s a forced dignity that comes from fear and anger, from the knowledge that the only place Shirley can let himself go is onstage — and even then not fully, since he’d rather be playing Chopin. (The idea is that highbrow white audiences won’t accept a black man playing classical music.) It’s too bad the violin- and piano-heavy score banalizes Ali. When Shirley, getting drunk on Cutty Sark, stares out a motel window at people by the pool having a good time, he could be lonely or angry or contemptuous or all three at once, but the plaintive piano chords make sure what you register is an all-purpose “sad.” The worst moment is when Tony and Shirley pull over by the side of the road and are regarded by forlorn black (male and female) sharecroppers. It’s not so much the idea that makes you wince but the overly plaintive music. More devastating are scenes in which southern aristocrats who effusively praise Shirley’s playing are firm in their insistence that he use the outhouse instead of the indoor bathroom.
I loved much of the banter between the two protagonists: The acting is better than the dialogue, which is better than the plotting. And I have to confess that in the current, insanely divisive political climate, I enjoyed Green Book’s spoon-feeding mightily. The movie taps into a kind of nostalgia for when everything — even racism — seemed simpler, and ready to be legislated out of existence.
Update: I find to my horror that my closing line reads as if I have nostalgia for a time when racism was even more pervasive and deadly than it is today. I don’t. I was writing as a white liberal who in the ‘60s believed that if the system were changed — the Voting Rights Act passed, discrimination on the basis of race made illegal, black people elected to higher office — white racists would come to understand the stupidity and illogic and evil of their prejudices. But what white racists (or white liberals) think is beside the point. My nostalgia for my own naivete — as well as the kind of old-fashioned, congenial mainstream anti-racist myth that flatters Northern white liberals — reveals the limits of my perspective, and I apologize unreservedly for expressing myself so insensitively.