WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Cultures clash when a working-class Italian-American from the Bronx becomes the driver for a classically trained pianist on a concert tour of the American South. Two very different, strong-willed men break through barriers of race, class, and education to form a deep and enduring bond - on the journey of a lifetime. Transcending initial assumptions and stereotypes, the pair’s unlikely alliance demonstrates the life-changing power of tolerance and cross-cultural understanding – two steadfast values that continue to resonate today.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
This review is not easy to write, because this movie both has so much wrong with it and so much right with it. This movie has stacked up awards on awards for almost everyone involved in it. But it has also been embroiled in controversy both for its onscreen portrayals and for its director and writer’s off-screen actions.
I am usually a person who thrives on nuance and contradiction like this. Grey is the stuff of dreams for a writer with neurosis like mine. There is more often than not, depth and introspection in which to revel, in pieces of art like that.
But sadly, with Green Book it was more like trying to scoop out a tiny piece of eggshell in a sunny side up egg; or like trying to see the silver lining in a horrible situation – not easy but probably doable.
First, there are the problematic men behind it: Nick Vallelonga and Peter Farrelly. The first of which posted an Islamophobic tweet and the second of which exposed himself to an actress on set. I’m not going to rehash those stories here but the reason those incidents are relevant is because this movie is about humans appealing to each other’s better nature.
It’s about two men who eventually see the best of each other despite their own prejudices by getting to know each other on a cross country roadtrip. Despite racism, homophobia, classism and toxic masculinity. To be in the cinema and be touched by that beautiful narrative and then walk out of the cinema and be so disappointed by the screenwriter (who happens to be the protagonist’s real-life son) and the director was like taking a bite of a shiny apple only to find a worm.
Washington Post’s Sonia Rao wrote about Green Book, “Some naysayers argued that “Green Book” does a disservice to the black man, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), by mostly focusing on how his trauma betters the white man, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). Shirley’s real-life family found fault with the film’s accuracy and said that Tony’s son, Nick, co-wrote the screenplay without consulting them.”
Next, there’s the problematic way in which the story unfolds. How Tony Lip is portrayed as the star when the film should really be about the character that would actually have to use a green book to travel around, Dr. Don Shirley. In Vox’s review of the film Alissa Wilkinson writes, “...The film’s approach to racism, common to Hollywood films, which is to suggest that relationships between individuals will heal centuries of racism. And indeed, Green Book’s treatment of racism is uneven at best.”
That aside, the silver lining of this movie is that the performances by the two lead actors, Mortensen and especially Ali, are totally absorbing. They both really express their true talent in their Lip and Dr. Shirley’s character development. I was given so much with simply a look or a glance, that sometimes the lines were just there for emphasis. It was a real treat to see these two men interact and deliver award-winning performances. I only wish that it hadn’t been in a film that the world might not look back on fondly despite its likely path to Oscar glory.
Should you watch this movie? Only if you want a story that’s lovely on the surface but not so great when you dig deeper.