US (2018) Dir. Peter Farrelly
When Moonlight won the Best Film Oscar in 2017 following the now infamous mix up with La La Land, it seemed Hollywood was either finally embracing diversity in cinema after being called out for ignoring it, or it was being politically safe for the same reason. Two years later, another film with a black lead, this time with racism as a primary issue, wins the best film Oscar, to the surprise of many.
Based on real events, Green Book looks at the unlikely relationship between an urbane, sophisticated black musician and a bigoted Italian-American in 1960’s America where segregation was still a prevalent issue. Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a bouncer at the Copa, a nightclub which is closing for refurbishment, forcing Tony to find work for the duration.
Following a tip off, Tony applies to be the driver for a Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a renowned classical-jazz pianist about to embark on an eight-week tour of the South and the Deep South. Tony’s reputation as a tough guy earned him the recommendation and the job, though the relationship between the boorish Italian and his cultured employer is one that is nurtured during this eventful trip enlightening both to each other’s worlds.
There was quite a backlash against Green Book and not just for winning the Oscar when it was up against the likes of The Favourite and Roma – no doubt upsetting a few bookies in the process – but also for it “safe” take on racism. It doesn’t shy away from it by any sense of the imagination but sometimes skims the surface of how horrific it was to be a black man in the Deep South back then.
But is this a good enough reason to dismiss the film outright? No, it isn’t. There is still an important story being told here and the fact it is based on real events carries some weight. However, while Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga co-wrote the script using stories his father told him, the Shirley family claim there was no friendship and Shirley only saw Tony as an employee. Whom to believe?
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the director Peter Farrelly is one half of the Farrelly brothers, noted for their silly, gross out comedies like Dumb And Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Nobody should expect filmmakers to stay with one genre or style for their entire careers, but it has to be admitted this is quite the leap for Farrelly and he does a sterling job to boot.
Returning to the issue of the “soft” approach to racism, this might not be a bad thing in terms of avoiding bludgeoning the audience with this aspect of what is a sensitive and potentially upsetting subject. For instance, in establishing Tony’s own ingrained attitude towards black people, a scene where throws out two glasses recently drunk from by two black workman does more to get this across than a full on racist rant.
Tony still isn’t someone to mince his words and even seems to have sabotaged his interview with Don Shirley with his bluntness, but this only affirms in Shirley’s mind that Tony is the man for the job. Naturally, Tony isn’t so tactless he’d let his mask slip but the reality is, he isn’t so bigoted he would refuse such a well paying job because of his employer’s ethnicity.
If anyone is judgemental, it is Shirley, constantly correcting Tony’s Bronx dialect and his uncouth ways, in a blatant role reversal of how the white elite would treat black people. It’s an exponential growth but the bond becomes one of mutual respect and education as to how the “other half” lives (for wanting a better term), in turn learning something about themselves in the process.
For Tony it is seeing just how badly Shirley is treated in the South whilst up North he is treated with the same respect and courtesy as anyone else, as one of the few black people fortunate enough not to be in a servile role of some kind. It is ironic that Shirley’s audience in the South are rich white people who welcome him with open arms, yet it is the same people who won’t have him dine in the same places as them.
But because this is designed as a “crowd pleasing” film to suit multiplex going audiences we end up with the feel good ending the story deserves even if it didn’t change anything in real life, whilst the bulk of the anti-racism messages are shared through impassioned rants made during testy times that might have been explored with more depth and subtlety.
Even if this sounds trite, it actually isn’t, thanks to the two powerhouse performances from leads Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, the latter of Dutch heritage yet pulls off an immaculate Italian-American accent, as well as piling on the weight to make Tony the husky chap he was. Ali, who bagged a Best Supporting actor Oscar, carries himself with a lofty dignity that borders on arrogance but we know comes from a completely different place.
As ever, the 60’s period has been faithfully recreated so old car enthusiasts and classic jazz lovers are well treated here, though this also means some choice racist verbiage from this era too. There is some gentle humour found in the clash of cultures, mostly as Shirley has to “slum it” in Tony’s world, but the tone remains rooted in the tense drama of racial discomfort.
Making a thorny topic like racism “accessible” for mainstream audiences – especially in the US – without being overly didactic is hard to achieve without diluting the message too much. Green Book arguably works better as an odd couple road trip film but still addresses its core issues with enough bite to avoid feeling like the wasted opportunity some have decreed it to be.
Best film of 2018? Maybe not but a good one nonetheless.