At The Movies- Green Book a Tame and Tepid Image

By Jordan Bosch

It’s unbelievable that Green Book is based on a true story.

Unbelievable because of how little truth there is in this movie. That’s not to say it’s inaccurate (though the family of Don Shirley has expressed notable reservations regarding how it portrays the relationship between him and Tony Vallelonga); but it’s not truthful in how it expresses its subject matter. Its’ single-minded portrayal of racism is without nuance, perfect for white people to digest without having to think about anything or consider an alternative perspective. And of course, the movie’s just bad.

In 1962, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a New York City nightclub bouncer is fired for his violent behaviour with unruly patrons. Eventually he gets a job as a driver for a classical pianist and composer Doctor Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) embarking on a tour in the Deep South.

Over the two month tour and in spite of their clashing behaviours and attitudes, the two form an unlikely friendship as they drive from city to city and encounter the bigotry common to the Jim Crow states. The Green Book of the title refers to a listing of hotels along the way that are safe for black people to stay in.

Directed by Peter Farrelly (yes THAT one) and co-written by Vallelonga’s son, this is a movie about racism told by white people who don’t fundamentally understand racism, except in its simplest terms.

The movie is framed in a largely positive, optimistic light, the journey as a learning experience for both Vallelonga and Shirley.

It avoids the harsher realities of racism in the American South during the 60’s by merely emphasizing the most conventional topics of segregated businesses and services, unwarranted arrests, and domestic servitude.

The bigots are characterized in the easiest manner possible, a couple being downright cartoons so as to keep them at a distance from the viewer, and almost no effort is made to showcase the fear and near constant danger Shirley would have been in on such a tour.

Reference is even made to the 1956 attack on Nat King Cole in Birmingham, Alabama, indirectly illustrating how tame Shirley’s experience has been by comparison.

It’s immensely puzzling how Shirley conducts himself in the South, as though trying to feign ignorance to racism and defeat it through sophistication; and it’s disturbing how Vallelonga often comes to his rescue and has to effectively teach him how to behave from time to time. And there’s a “joke” that recurs through the movie about fried chicken, and it’s exactly as uncomfortable as it sounds. 

Beside all that sloppy larger context, Green Book is a movie about the friendship between these two men.

Yet neither endears themselves much towards the audience. Vallelonga is a crass, obnoxious, slobbish, and mildly racist thug, speaking in the most excruciatingly stereotypical Italian-American accent in any serious film.

Viggo Mortensen has taken on a number of unusual roles in his versatile career (just last year his turn in the bizarre Captain Fantastic earned him an Oscar nomination), but I can’t recall him giving a performance this unequivocally bad and bereft of subtlety before.

Mahershala Ali is certainly better, but his character doesn’t come off well either. He’s incredibly pompous and presumptuous, takes it upon himself to try and improve Vallelonga’s writing without his permission, and constantly exudes a sense of moral and intellectual superiority. And this is the character who needs to be likable.

The film does touch on one interesting facet of Shirley’s identity, as someone who feels cut off both from white society and black society, but it isn’t explored with any real depth.

Linda Cardellini is wasted in the nothing role of Vallelonga’s wife Dolores, and it should be no surprise that there aren’t any other significant black characters in the movie apart from Shirley.

There’s an implication that Shirley is doing this tour in an effort to open peoples’ minds, and indeed the general attitude of the movie towards racism is that it’s all bad people steeped in bad traditions without acknowledging the cultural and institutional factors that kept racism alive and continues to persist in American society.

Because of this, there are moments and themes that recall the likes of Crash, and while Green Book isn’t quite as ignorant or wrong-headed as that joke of a Best Picture winner, it operates on some of the same unfortunate logic. Vallelonga and Shirley learn to see past each others’ differences, so everything’s alright. The audience can go home feeling better about themselves.

The music’s good though. Any time Shirley is at his piano, it’s really nice. But that doesn’t at all save Green Book from being any more than Driving Miss Daisy in reverse, exactly as ineffective and safe for white people seeking reassurance that they’re not racist.

It’s the kind of movie that might have been saying something constructive if it came out in 1962, but otherwise I can’t understand why anyone sees it as anything more than an outdated white saviour narrative.

I have no doubt a story about Don Shirley and his white driver could have been great. But clearly it should have been told by Shirley’s family, not Vallelonga’s.

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