Powerful acting rescues a feel-good film that garners a few too many laughs from the racism it attempts to decry.
In the fall of 1962, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga is laid off from his job as a nightclub bouncer while the club undergoes repairs. Dr. Don Shirley is a wealthy, worldly piano virtuoso; he is also black. Because of Tony’s experience in handling volatile situations, Dr. Shirley asks Tony to be his driver on a tour of the Deep South, using the vital guide The Negro Motorist Green Book to find hotels that would allow Dr. Shirley to stay.
The two men are complete opposites. Tony (Viggo Mortenson) is loud, vulgar, quick-tempered, and knows his way around a barroom brawl. He’s also a family man who hates being away from his wife and children. Dr. Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is refined, highly educated, a bit finicky, and very lonely.
Green Book is part road-trip movie, part buddy movie, and part a flipped version of Driving Miss Daisy. Even as it tackles heavy racial issues, it keeps a lighthearted tone, aiming to be a feel-good movie.
The lighthearted tone is problematic, as it doesn’t always portray with enough gravitas the racism the movie decries. Tony’s use of racial slurs and racial stereotypes that were legitimate to that character in that time and place was sometimes received by the audience I was part of as being all in good fun, sort of “That’s just how things were, and isn’t Tony endearing anyway?” That attitude distances viewers from the truly devastating effects of racism and from the fact that racial injustice is not a relic of the past.
Something else bothered me as well. When I was in high school a long time ago, the movie Witness was in theaters. Harrison Ford’s cop goes undercover with an Amish community to protect a young boy who had witnessed a crime. When they go into town, a guy begins heckling the Amish, and Ford’s character finally punches him in the face to shut him up. A teacher of mine pointed out that this was one of the most satisfying moments to the viewer. However, the violence shunned by the Amish is what made the viewer feel that this jerk had finally been put in his place. The moviemakers wanted us to feel the satisfaction that the violence brought.
Likewise, Tony’s short fuse leads to a couple of moments of violence, and one of them feels uncomfortably satisfying. The act goes against everything Dr. Shirley believes in, diminishing the movie’s apparent message that Shirley’s bravery lies in his willingness to put himself in this dangerous position because his decorum and gift of music might change hearts and minds of the racist South.
Yet there is something powerful about Green Book too. Mortenson’s oblivious bouncer from the Bronx is steadfast even as he finds aspects of Dr. Shirley’s life bewildering. More powerful still is the sometimes strong, sometimes fragile dignity that emanates from Ali. When there is a danger in skimming over the racism too lightly, Ali’s restraint gives his performance a subtle intensity that makes his suffering much more real to the viewer. The problem is that we see all of this from Tony’s perspective; the viewer is thus on Tony’s journey, not Don Shirley’s.
What rescues the movie from its pitfalls is both wonderful acting and great chemistry between the actors. Mortenson is almost unrecognizable as Tony, and he is a great touchstone for the elegant restraint and grace with which Ali imbues Dr. Shirley.
All in all, I enjoyed the movie in spite of its flaws. Knowing that Tony Vallelonga and Don Shirley maintained a lifelong friendship after these events makes those flaws a bit easier to overlook. Honestly, the movie is much more nuanced than one might expect from director Peter Farrelly, who is best known for his gross-out comedies Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary.
Green Book is rated PG-13—be cautioned that the film includes a lot of strong language, some violence and suggestive material. (Universal)