If you were going to come up with a film that spoke to all of the historic preferences of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, then you would most likely end up with something that looks like Green Book. Period setting? Check. Race relations theming? Check. Previous Oscar winners and nominees? Check. Inspired by a true story? Check. Of course, a picture can tick all of those boxes and still not make the cut, so I was interested to see whether this particular entry in to the “this is everything you are supposed to enjoy” contest was worthy of its hype.
Set in the early 1960s, Green Book tells the story of Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American club bouncer who takes a job driving and minding prodigious black pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he embarks on a concert tour around America’s Deep South. As one might expect, their journey through states like Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Georgia does not always go to plan, and as Tony works to protect his boss, the two men also go on a personal journey with one another in terms of addressing and reassessing their own prejudices and identities within society.
Here’s the thing about Green Book, it is the kind of film that would have won Best Picture in 1994, and that brings with it both praise and criticism. There is no denying that the movie has a certain charm, I fell for a lot of it myself. From the witty ‘we’re really both sides of the same coin’ type banter, to cathartic rebellions against the overt racism of the time, to a few interesting nuanced takes on race relations from both ends of the spectrum, I can’t deny that I didn’t have a mostly pleasant time watching. However, on reflection, the utter safeness with which the film treats its subject matter and themes does feel as though it could have been made twenty five years ago. There is more than just a hint of the white saviour trope in the narrative, and if you should choose to analyse it in such a way, there is certainly a sticky thread of a white man ‘teaching a black man what kind of black man he should be’.
Green Book touches on arguably dozens of really important and interesting questions across its two hour runtime, but the film remains at such a surface level throughout, scared to take any grittier, potentially more realistic risks that would jeopardise a PG-13 rating, that it ends up being a lot less moving and affecting than it should be. I’m not going to sit here and say that I didn’t enjoy the film, because I’d be lying if I said I didn’t, but at the same time I can absolutely understand that this kind of ‘user friendly’ cinematic treatment of 1960s racism only ever serves to make apologetic white people feel better about themselves. Green Book is an comfortable feeling safe ride exploring themes that are the very opposite of comfortable and safe. It gave me some pleasure, but I’m well aware that it is essentially the cinematic equivalent of “I’m not racist, I’ve got a black friend”.
Without a doubt, the thing that elevates the film from its annoying fear of being more ‘real’ are the leading performances. As Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga, Viggo Mortensen is so stereotypically Italian-American that his middle name might as well be Soprano, but there is something undeniably charismatic and forceful about his performance. If you met someone like that in real life, you would scarcely be able to believe they were being authentic, but in the slightly idealised and heightened world of stereotypes in which Green Book operates, what could be a grating character actually fits right in.
As the complicated and enigmatic Don Shirley, Mahershala Ali presents a solid case to win Best Supporting Actor for the second time in three years. Ali wonderfully portrays a man caught in between two worlds and cultures, with his classical education and society manners deeming him not ‘black enough’ by his own race peers, and no amount of genteel behaviour and talent giving him anything other than respect as a hired performer by his white contemporaries. Throw in a far too skated over scene concerning Shirley’s homosexuality, and you have the makings of a really interesting central character. Mahershala Ali does the very best he can with what turns out to be not the best script in the world, I would say at least 75% of the strength of the character is down to his high level acting abilities. Fortunately, as a duo, the two actors do create an extremely watchable chemistry, a film this focused on the story of a partnership in such close quarters would have been a disaster otherwise.
Overall, Green Book is a completely solid period piece that, whilst providing comfortable feeling cinematic entertainment, does feel like a race relations movie from a simpler, less nuanced time. A film that presents a lot more humour than most you tend to see about racism in mid 20th century America, perhaps a nice addition to a theme that has seen some incredibly hard hitting takes over the last few years. I can’t say that it blew me away, but equally, I fell for some its charm, no matter how strategic and kit gloved it may have been.