Exploring the politics of race and class in 1960s America, Green Book attempts to shine a light on the civil rights era through an inspirational buddy drama. It works for the most part, but at best it’s a somewhat sentimental and nostalgic look back on American history, and at worst it’s racism seen through the rose-tinted lens of white people.
The film is based on a true story about the supposed friendship between Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a middle-class, black American classically trained pianist, and Tony “The Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a working-class, white Italian-American who works as a bouncer at the local mob-occupied Copacabana bar and seems to spend his time smoking or making racist remarks. Obviously these two are an unrealistic odd-couple, and only meet up because Shirley needs to hire someone to take him down South on a concert tour – both to drive him, and also be the heavy man should he run into trouble in the racist Bible Belt.
The film’s title refers to “The Negro Motorist’s Green Book” which listed places that would be safe to visit when “travelling while black”, and shows just how segregated things were at this time: Shirley is forced to stay in decrepit all-black hostels, Vallelonga lounges in “no coloreds” all-white hotels. Their time on the road together facing racist cops, privileged white audiences, and segregated hotels, develops into an unlikely bond, making the tight-lipped, intellectual Shirley eventually soften to Vallelonga’s bigoted illiteracy. Amongst this, their friendship blossoms. Shirley provides a moral counterpoint to Vallelonga’s brashness and offers him writing coaching to court his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini); and Vallelonga offers strength and bravery – in spite of his racism – to protect and defend the weaker Shirley, alongside teaching him “black culture”, which apparently Shirley is excluded from knowing, due to his class.
If this sounds fantastical, it is. In essence, it’s a “white-saviour” drama, disguised well as a buddy road movie. Telling a story about a black man’s experience of racism through the eyes of a white character, in a film written by white men (Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly) and directed by a white man (Farrelly), obviously can’t understand the complexities of the subject, or fully imagine the experience. This is highlighted by recent statements made by the late Don Shirley’s family, who claim he refused permission for his story to be filmed, and that his relationship with Tony Vallelonga was limited, purely business-related, and not at all as portrayed in Green Book. Furthermore, screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, Tony Vallelonga’s son, recently deleted his Twitter account after some journalists highlighted a number of racist and anti-Muslim remarks he posted on the social media site, and this tarnishes even more the validity of a film purporting to address racism. The furore around this has been so great that Ali (who is Muslim) has all but denounced Green Book, apologising to Shirley’s relatives “If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry. I did the best I could with the material I had.”
It’s a shame Ali’s role is mired in such controversy, because his performance is powerful in its restraint. He is a remarkable actor, bringing deep layers to a character which feels unsurprisingly under-written, and offering a combination of rage, dignity and loneliness of a man alienated by his class and race (and also, strongly hinted at, his homosexuality). Mortensen provides a strong buffer to Ali’s Shirley with his gruff-but-heart-of-gold softened brute. But even with admirable acting, and such a crowd-pleasing, inspirational story, Green Book essentially feels like civil-rights lip-service for a white audience, and given the background to the script, it’s a disappointing portrayal of historical systemic racism, whilst ignoring its continuation in modern-day America.
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack