Review: GREEN BOOK

NOTE: This independent review, accompanying video and others like it are supported by the generosity of donors to The MovieBob Patreon. If you’d like to see more like it, please consider becoming a patron.

If nothing else, I can say that I didn’t dislike GREEN BOOK as much as I was expecting to based on the trailers and the general premise. You can put about 99% of that on the actors, I suspect, as what enjoyment there was to be derived was found in savoring two of our better actors doing the (extremely) heavy lifting of turning a pair of Hallmark-level middlebrow caricatures into three-dimensional persons without sacrificing the cartoonishly-broad conception of them that remains the point of the project. It’s the sort of softball Awards Season pablum where, in my circles at least, you mostly come away grateful that you won’t have to bite your tongue too hard when your relatives are telling you how much they loved it at Thanksgiving.

From the onset, what made GREEN BOOK (for the record, the title refers to a travel guide published for African Americans in the Segregation-era essentially laying out how to make your way from place to place in the segregated U.S. via “Negro-friendly” establishments and also without getting victimized by legally-protected/enforced racist violence) look like a somewhat dire prospect was it’s nakedly Stanley Kramer-ish “social issues through an uplifting lens for white progressives” setup: Hardscrabble NYC blue-collar Italian doofus Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is hired to drive Black classical piano virtuoso Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on his early-1960s concert tour through the Deep South, during which a contentious but nuanced friendship develops between the two very different men that, yes, challenges Tony’s era-typical racial prejudices, but also – wouldn’t you just know it? – shows how we’re actually not all that different and maybe the eccentric, sophisticated Don has some prejudices he could stand to confront, too.

The appeal to Hollywood’s – and, let’s be honest, America’s – preferred narrative about racism (it’s bad but it mostly happened in the past because Good White People who could be educated got over it and helped thwart the Bad White People – oh and also Black people should participate in a “conversation” about this, thank the Good White People for being so good and admit that various dissimilar hardships are also bad and thus we’re really all the same) was obvious on its face; but what becomes immediately clear and immeasurably more tiring is the realization of what must have made GREEN BOOK (“Based on a True Story” as related by Mr. Vallelonga’s son, disputed on some details by Dr. Shirley’s family) look so irresistible in 2018: It’s ability to function as a too-clever-by-half allegory for the supposed “lessons” of the 2016 Presidential election vis-a-vi “Obama backlash” by the White Working Class being more about rebuking hoity-toity big city elitism than racism, and moreover that classism and/or working-class unity are the more pressing concerns, anyhow.

Within this conceit, the broad strokes of Don Shirley’s character make him an almost too appropriate “Proto-Bama” figure: A wealthy, highly-educated eccentric whose apartment is laid out about as ornately as that of Doctor Strange, he conducts Tony’s job interview seated in a literal throne and makes no attempt to hide his disdain for his would-be valet’s working class goombah’ diction nor the fact that he’s pointedly hiring him because he needs a discreetly-dirty thug (Tony is a mob-adjacent bouncer and knockaround guy) to protect him in Jim Crow country in part because his world-traveling music, art and psychology studies have left him in some ways even more disconnected from “ordinary” Black American culture than he is white America (he’s never even eaten fried chicken – yes, this a whole scene.) In fact, Tony knows Black popular music, how to “handle himself” in a Black bar and – wouldn’t you just know it? – gets on with the mostly-Black waiters, cleaners and other drivers at venues easily because, hey, bein’ broke and workin’ for the swells don’t got no color, amirite?

GREEN BOOK, of course, comes down on the “am rite” side of that question, which is… “a take,” certainly. To be fair, there’s adequate (if a bit too baseline to qualify as “admirable”) nuance to be found in the expected beats wherein the harsh realities of “real racism” combined with Shirley being something like the Superman of pianos (and teaching him how to use romantic metaphors so that his love letters home to his wife are better) teach Tony that his lower-key racism needs to go away. But if you were thinking the film would manage to avoid a scene where the characters angrily shout the message of the film at one another (“You dunno yer own people, Doc!!!” “If I’m not white enough or not Black enough or not man enough, what am I!?”) or find a way to make sure that we know Tony is also an Exceptional Man of His Time, think again:

At one point, Shirley gets into trouble with some dangerous cops – not for his race this time, but for being caught in a tryst with another man. When Tony upbraids him for going out unprotected, he (Don) informs him that he’d assumed he wouldn’t want to know he was working for a gay man. But (surprise!) Tony is actually very ahead of his time on the subject, because “He works in New York clubs” and “knows that life is, ehh… y’know, complicated.” Wouldn’t you just know it? Gee, maybe Don should examine some assumptions and prejudices of his own, huh? And even though racism is bad, maybe it’s also bad to wall yourself off from it behind internationalism and academia – lest you lose touch with the common salt-of-the-Earth values that unite us all and will only make flyover (or, rather, drive-carefully-through) country resent you more, right?

Like I said, this all should be insufferable and yet, outside of the more egregious “think about it, won’t you?” moments it mostly hums along about smoothly as what boils down to “My Cousin Vinny Teaches Carlton Banks To Get His Blackness Back” probably can under the circumstances; and however treacly the “Family, that’s what really matters” finale you’ll see coming the moment the mechanism to bring it about comes into play ends up feeling earned – once again, mostly because Mortensen and Ali are both much better than this material but also just enough so that they don’t let you see that they probably know that. It’s not a great film, it feels like it’s from 30 years ago and within five years from now it’ll probably feel like a relic from the Bronze Age but, for now at least, you could do a lot worse for Trump-era white-reassurance racism movies (and unfortunately we probably will.)

NOTE: This independent review, accompanying video and others like it are supported by the generosity of donors to The MovieBob Patreon. If you’d like to see more like it, please consider becoming a patron.

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