by Alan Yudman
When politics ignores or repudiates the past, it is the arts that must step up and remind people about the truth of that history. As some continue to believe there is no race problem in the United States, it’s important that movies like GET OUT, BLACKKKLANSMAN, MOONLIGHT, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, LOVING and now GREEN BOOK get made and get seen.
The title GREEN BOOK refers to a book or pamphlet that was kind of a guide for African-Americans traveling through the south in the 1960’s so they could avoid running into problems. In this movie it is something given to Viggo Mortensen’s Tony Lip as he is employed to drive Mahershala Ali’s Dr. Don Shirley on a 2-month concert tour of the south.
Tony is a bruiser. He is bouncer of sorts at the famed Copacabana in New York. Dr. Shirley is a world renowned pianist who decides to take his trio to places where he may not be welcome as a black man. Tony is hired because he is reliable, is “muscle” and— as he describes himself— a good bullshitter.
At first Shirley is all affectation and superiority in his interaction with Tony. He sees him as less. Just as America sees him as less than a full man. Shirley believes he must be teacher and mentor to make sure Tony doesn’t embarrass him on the road.
At the same time, Tony is a bigot. Early in the movie he throws out the glasses of two black workers who are repairing the floor in his apartment. He looks uncomfortable while the two workers are being friendly with his wife. His friends and family call black people “eggplant”. That is his world.
In many ways this is a traditionally told story about race and awakening to how the “other half lives”. Director and co-screenwriter Peter Farrelly (yeah, from SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, etc.) chooses a very familiar way to tell the story. GREEN BOOK is a very straight ahead drama with some comedy mixed in to lighten the mood. But the funny parts don’t get in the way or diminish the story. Both Shirley and Tony are vividly drawn characters at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Shirley is all interiors. He plays everything close to the vest and chooses to go along to get along, rather than be ripe for confrontation. Tony is just the opposite. Every slight must be acted upon. No comment should be ignored. He challenges everything and everyone if he feels it is necessary, and it usually is.
None of this works without the immense talents of Mortensen and Ali. Mortensen is a shape shifter. He can add or lose weight, or change his look to fit the role he is playing. For this he must have put on 30 pounds to play the well-fed Tony. He also mastered the Bronx accent and speaking Italian. Those would all be simple tricks if he wasn’t so good at inhabiting a character and finding his core. No matter how tough-talking Tony Lip may be, he’s a caring husband and father. Mortensen allows that humanity to push through.
Ali has a similar talent for owning his character’s core. In this case, Shirley displays affected superiority. But down deep he is insecure and troubled by his loneliness and how he must present himself to be accepted by white America.
GREEN BOOK is a story that must be repeated so we all can be reminded of the way things were, and how far we may still have to go.
I continue to think about GREEN BOOK because something has been scratching at my brain. I liked the movie a lot (that is probably obvious) but I didn’t LOVE it. And I’ve been trying to figure out why. I have landed on this.. it is too easy to root for the right people. Their dark sides are not fully black, but more shades of gray. Their flaws felt minor to me and that made them seem a bit too fictional for a movie based on a true story. Overcoming those flaws felt too easy… too short a trip. That is the fault of the writers, not the actors who are truly remarkable. They take that slightly flawed screenplay and make it sing. So, see GREEN BOOK. It is important to see it to know the history. But as a film it left me wanting a bit more.