Some films appear to have been “done” many times before. Green Book, the latest Oscar contender starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, is no different. The film, based on a true story, narrates how African-American pianist Dr Don Shirley (Ali) hires Italian-American bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen) to drive him around the American South for a 1962 concert tour. Despite their differences the two men gradually begin to understand each other and even become friends.
So far, nothing new. Or so it seems. However, Green Book has a lot going for it. The film looks beautiful, the soundtrack is wonderful, and the narrative is carried by two great actors. To a certain extent it is a feel good film about an unlikely friendship between two very different men. But its historical connections stop it from becoming too sugary.
For the film, being set in 1962, also documents the effects of the Jim Crow law that was still in place across the South at the time. Shirley is praised by his white audience but harassed on the streets and denied access to “white” restaurants and restrooms. Below the film’s light-hearted surface there’s a sense of danger that feels all too real. For, of course, it was real for many and to an extent still is. One only needs to think about Black Lives Matter to realize how much so.
The film’s title comes from the actual Green Book, a 1960s travel guide listing restaurants and hotels where African-American travellers were welcome and safe. That this publication even existed in the first place says a lot about American racial politics. More specifically: the utter horrendousness of said politics. The trailer, while focusing on the films happier scenes, offers a disturbing taste of what’s to come.
Of course the film, given its subject matter, has attracted controversy. The accusation I’ve heard most often is that it does not do the racial complexities it discusses enough justice, and that its comedic elements diminish its anti-racist message. I get that, the film certainly is not without its problems, and I wonder whether there’s a way to cover this kind of painful subject “in the right way” in the first place. Racism is so fundamentally not right, after all.
Shirley’s family have argued that the film misrepresents the relationship between Shirley and Lip, who were employer and employee rather than close friends. They certainly have a point. Many moviegoers may forget that they are looking at a work of fiction rather than a documentary. Not everybody may realize that the film’s portrayal of its protagonists and events is an interpretation, not an accurate recording. The complexities of this are worth bearing in mind, as with any work of fiction based on historical facts.
Having said that, I do think the film is more complex than some of its criticasters seem to think it is. Besides, I’m not a fan of “I don’t like this so it’s inherently bad and no one should be watching it” rhetoric. Why not watch the film anyway and then have a meaningful discussion about its problematic elements?
I for me have realized that my knowledge about this recent period in American history is patchy and in urgent need of updating. I was also unfamiliar with Shirley’s work and am in the process of rectifying this. I surely wasn’t expecting this. When I went to the cinema I was looking for entertainment. I would have skipped a “heavy” film. Instead, I had a great time with a film that made me think as well as laugh. Not a bad result, I believe.
If you’re looking for straightforward entertainment – director Peter Farrelly also made There’s Something about Mary and Dumb and Dumber – this is not your film. It has too many uncomfortable scenes. Perhaps not enough, but I liked the balance between dark and light. I loved the look and feel of the film. Rumour has it Ali may get the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor this year. If he does, it would be well-deserved (although I don’t think of him as a supporting actor, and this choice in itself deserved to be debated). Whatever you think of the film’s politics, it’s worth a watch for its acting alone.
Image Simon Matzinger via Pexels