Throughout award season and probably beyond, Green Book is going to get a lot of hate. And I’ll be honest: even after watching the movie myself and reflecting on it a whole hell of a lot over the past week I couldn’t tell you with 100% certainty what amount of that hate it does or does not deserve. Sorry, I know that’s a weird way to phrase the opening to a review of a film that I really, truly enjoyed. A film that, if it came out 20 years ago, may have been revered as a monumentally important and progressive film. But of course it’s 2019 –no longer the 20th century–and the context of the conversation over race has changed immensely.
If you aren’t familiar with the controversy at hand, after a phenomenal response when it opened at the Toronto Film Festival, Green Book has been plagued by claims of inaccuracy, and to a greater extent, a self-congratulating racism. Those criticisms stem primarily from a plot somewhat reminiscent of movies like Driving Miss Daisy. The (partially?) true story of all-time great pianist Dr. Don Shirley, an African-American, and his concert tour through the pre-civil rights south with his racist Italian-immigrant driver Tony Lip, Green Book tells the story of how the mismatched pair slowly learned to get past each other’s differences and become friends.
Just from that brief synopsis it’s natural to begin rolling your eyes and believe me I did too.
But as much as I came in expecting to dislike the film, as much as I came in with my expectations colored so greatly by the criticisms I’d read, I couldn’t get past one, undeniable fact: Green Book is a pleasure to watch.
And however simplistic and narrow sighted the screenplay (written by director Peter Farley, Brian Currie, and Lip’s own son Nick Vallelonga) may be, a magnetic chemistry between Shirley (played with an understated yet pitch-perfect intensity by Mahershala Ali) and Lip (the effortlessly charismatic Viggo Mortensen) powers the consistently funny and watchable odyssey.
A buddy comedy at heart, much of the hilarity and joy of Green Book comes from watching these two fish out of water collide and swim about in the shimmering yet perilous world of the American South. Tony Lip, as we get to know him over an extended but fun 30-minute intro, is a crafty but very street bouncer born into an immigrant family in the Bronx. A family man above all else, there’s a larger than life nature to Lip that endears him to us, seemingly outweighing his more racist tendencies. In need of money after his club is shut down for repairs, Lip decides to put aside his prejudices as he agrees to drive and serve as muscle for Dr. Sherley during his concert tour in the South. Sherley, for his part, is also far out of his element. His prodigal genius and queerness has alienated him from the rest of the black community and even his own family, and his brave foray into the South has left him dangerously exposed. Arguing and discussing everything from taste in food and music to proper etiquette and cultural identity, the hilarious dichotomy of the views of our two characters makes for a brilliantly entertaining and heartwarming period piece.
Now it’s true, despite being about racism towards black people in America, Green Book is not for them.
It is, first and foremost, a movie for white people.
While it touches on issues of race and identity, the decision to make the film a buddy comedy prevents it from going deep enough into its subject matter to make the better, more complex film that this story often suggested. I’ve grappled with this problem for days now, unsure of where to place this movie in the context of the increasingly complex ongoing discussion over race that strangles us as a society nowadays. Ultimately, I’d argue it’s not a white savior movie, I think that’s unfair to say with how powerfully Dr. Shirley is portrayed, but the movie on the hole is old fashioned and lacks the maturity that can be found in films like Moonlight (in which Ali won his first Oscar) or a movie like If Beale Street Could Talk. But whatever problems over race Green Book struggles with, in an age when the alt-right has seized power in America, it’s vital to put a disclaimer that Green Book does not represent that type of hate. Even beyond that, while its sensibilities are old fashioned and basic at times, its message of love and acceptance stands opposed to the far more dangerous ideologies that have become mainstream today.
I get that it’s not perfect or even a true work of art. But in an era where much worse, direct hatred is once again on the rise, is a crow-pleasing movie that condemns racism and celebrates what connects us as humans really the problem?