Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.
Oscar has a race problem, and Green Book, while not a symptom, is evidence of that problem. Oscar and the Academy loves to talk about race and about the dangers and problems of racism, and yet Oscar can’t quite overcome its own biases. Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture for 1989 in part because it was a movie about racism and in part because it was a safe movie about racism. The audience knew when to smile and when to be outraged and when to be angry on behalf of the characters and when to be angry at the characters. Do the Right Thing from the same year asked better and more interesting questions. It was dangerous. It asked a lot of questions and didn’t provide answers for most of them, and all of the characters were simultaneously in the right and terribly wrong. Almost 30 years later, Oscar managed to reward the same sort of safe racism movie with another Best Picture award in giving it to Green Book.
Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortenson) works as a bouncer at the Copacabana in the early 1960s. When the Copa is closed for renovation, Tony finds himself in need of a job for a couple of months. He is asked to interview for a job as a driver for Doctor Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a pianist planning a tour through the the Midwest and the Deep South. Given that this is from before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, there are parts of the South that would not have been safe for a black man.
Look, there’s plenty of happenings here as we follow Tony and Dr. Shirley through the South. Tony writes letters to his wife and Dr. Shirley helps improve those letters. Dr. Shirley walks into the wrong bar and gets attacked, and Tony shows up to save him. Dr. Shirley is distressed by Tony’s lack of education and class while Tony can’t get over the other man’s evidently prissy dignity and refusal to act in the way Tony expects he should. They fight. They learn from each other. And eventually, we get an ending on Christmas Eve reminiscent of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
I’m not going to say that this is a bad movie, because it clearly isn’t. Green Book is well-made and well-acted. I like Viggo Mortenson in general, and I appreciate his evident willingness to put on 20 pounds to play Tony Lip despite being told he didn’t need to. It adds a level of authenticity to the character for him to be stouter. Mahershala Ali has an air of dignity about him that plays well in any film, and especially one that requires him to act in a manner that exudes a certain level of class.
There was a great deal of controversy surrounding the film, because of course there was. The fact that this was directed by Peter Farrelly is itself something of a controversy, since Farrelly is best known for lowbrow comedy (Ali evidently called him a first-time director with 25 years of experience). There was controversy regarding the relationship between Tony and Don Shirley not being portrayed accurately, and about members of Don Shirley’s family being alive and unhappy with the portrayals of the man himself.
My problem with Green Book is what I mentioned above: it’s safe. It’s too safe. We know exactly when and where we’re supposed to be outraged and upset. When Don Shirley can’t get served in a restaurant, we’re supposed to be outraged. When he can’t eat in the club he’s been hired to perform at, or when he’s harassed by the police, or attacked for simply being black in the South, we’re supposed to be angry. And, in the main, we are because it’s easy to be angry when we see that happening. But again, it’s an easy sort of anger. There are no difficult questions of race here; there are only the sorts of questions where the answers are given and have been known for decades. In short, Green Book asks the same question that Driving Miss Daisy did, and the people who get these questions wrong are the same ones who are shocked that people take offense at someone dropping N-bombs in casual conversation.
I won’t kid about this. Green Book is a fine movie. It really is, but it’s also incredibly unchallenging. It’s simple to be outraged at overt racism that, at least in some respects, has died out or is dying out. It’s like being angry at slavery. Of course it’s clearly and obviously wrong. It’s an easy dog whistle for most of the population of most of the world.
Hollywood turns out a number of movies on all sorts of topics. In the last few years, movies like Get Out and BlacKkKlansman* have shone a different perspective on racial issues, or attacked the problem in different ways. Heralding Green Book as being somehow groundbreaking or extra meaningful is like rewarding a film for taking the position that cancer is bad. Sure, you can make a good movie out of that, but it’s not much of a stretch.
(*I know BlacKkKlansman doesn’t take a difficult position, either. We root for the right people and are angry at the right times when watching it. But that movie isn’t about our outrage, but the ludicrousness of the situation. It’s an absurdist comedy that isn’t asking for our primary reaction to be outrage or anger.)
Why to watch Green Book: It's well-acted, and demonstrates that Peter Farrelly can do something more than fart jokes.
Why not to watch: It refuses to ask a difficult question.