Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, which surprised everyone when it won in Toronto, is the kind of movie the gives back more than it takes. It’s the kind of thing you didn’t know you were missing until the credits roll. I’ve been covering the Oscars from the end of the Bill Clinton era and into the George W. Bush era, through the Obama era, and now into the Trump era. We’re living through some dark days, so much so that many of us feel too tender to the touch, as though just waking up to live through another day is a challenge. Going all the way back to its inception, cinema has often been a salve for people in the most desperate of times. Fantasy and superhero franchise films have indeed come to dominate the movie theaters — after all, who can justify spending that kind of money if you don’t walk out feeling like you got your money’s worth. But there have been times when movies you pay to see give you your money’s worth just by telling good stories, stories that can make you feel good.
The plot for Green Book is based loosely on a true story of a Bronx native, raised on racial epithets and segregated cultures of the immigrant working class outside Manhattan (also nicely explored in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, only in Brooklyn, but the same basic idea), who is hired to drive around a highly cultured academic who lives in a ritzy apartment above Carnegie Hall. The white guy is Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip, and the black guy is Mahershala Ali as pianist Don Shirley.
It goes without saying that I’m a white writer writing about watching a film that is, first and foremost, about friendship, but also one about race. I’m only half the story here, and my reaction can only count for half. I can’t possibly know what it feels like to watch the film as a non-white person. I can’t pretend to. White-guilt culture has a history of movies that make white people look good in films about race, like Mississippi Burning, like Driving Miss Daisy, like The Help. There is always that one good white person to illustrate that not everyone is racist. Green Book might have a little of that, sure, but it also just gives us two beautifully drawn, brilliantly acted portraits of two people who lived and died in real life.
Green Book is drawn from the memory of Nick Vallelonga (also one of the screenwriters), whose father, Tony Vallelonga (“Tony Lip”), once drove Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) through the Deep South. He was his driver and bodyguard of sorts, keeping the racist jackholes off of him while he went to the places he was invited to play. Playing for rich folks in segregated, still-racist-to-this-day states like Alabama and Mississippi was historically important to Shirley, who knows that just playing there makes a difference, even if they don’t allow you to use their restrooms or eat in their dining rooms.
Mortensen is unrecognizable as Tony Lip. As impressed as I’ve been with his ability to disappear into roles, he’s never delivered such a fully realized character as this. There isn’t a moment in the entire film where you remember it’s an actor playing a part. He IS Tony Lip. Every throwaway glance, every wipe of his mouth, every cigarette smoked, every look, every laugh — all of it readable on his face. For all of Mortensen’s gifts in shapeshifting, he has never quite been able to create such an intimate dialogue with the viewer as he does here. If he judged Tony too harshly, he could never have played him with so much innate humanity. Tony means well. He hasn’t been taught well, but he means well and where I come from that counts for a lot.
And for everyone who thought Mahershala Ali was “playing himself” in Moonlight can at last see that he too is a versatile shape-shifter who is also unrecognizable as Don Shirley. Where in Moonlight he exuded confidence and sure-handed focus, here Ali is full of self-doubt, despite the careful pretenses he’s adopted. His vulnerability peeks through his veneer. The real Don Shirley was raised in Jamaica and thus carried with him a snobbery against classless Americans (I was raised by a Jamaican, so I can attest to this). Ali’s Shirley is playing a guy who mostly lives alone, gay in a time when you could not be (even worse, you could be killed for it). And if the movie glides a little too conveniently over Tony Lip’s acceptance of Don’s sexuality, remember: he worked at the Copacabana — he was used to variety in the sex department.
We’re living through the kind of times where you are either good or bad, racist or not racist, homophobic or not, where people dig up decades old tweets as if to uncover, at last, that you really are one of those unforgivables we must purge from our ranks. But there are gray areas, particularly where generational shifts are concerned. We grow up where we grow up. We learn what we learn. But a genuinely good person can learn to open their hearts and their minds. Tony figures out pretty quickly that he really likes Don and Don figures out, a little less quickly, that he really likes Tony. They start there. Through their relationship they grow to be better people by letting the other one in.
Sure, this movie might be a harder sell if these actors weren’t so utterly brilliant in their roles. But they are brilliant. They are so good that you end up wishing the movie would never end. From start to finish, Green Book is pleasure to sit through. You can sit almost anyone down in front of it and they will get it if not love it, and you Oscar watchers know what that means. There is always the one movie that comes out in a given year that you can pretty much recommend to just about anyone — and this year, Green Book is that movie. And you know what? We could use a lot more of these films in the film industry and in American culture.
Just like it’s satisfying nonetheless to watch Gene Hackman kick ignorant cracker ass in Mississippi Burning, it is equally satisfying to watch uneducated but tough guy Tony threaten the hillbillies in Green Book. Unlike Mississippi Burning, however, the one scolding Tony isn’t another white guy — it’s Don Shirley, who believes dignity always wins out. Ali’s role as Don Shirley is very nearly equal to Mortensen’s. Both really are leads. I understand that Ali will “go supporting” because that’s the best way to round the bases, Oscar wise, but indeed it’s a film about both men: their limitations, their strengths, and how they teach each other a thing a two about a think or two. It is their warmth towards each other, their nimble acting chops, and finally, their ability to reveal the subtle shifts happening internally that makes Green Book such a riveting, moving, and entertaining couple of hours.
It isn’t that the job of cinema is to make us feel good. The best films I’ve seen so far this year do what cinema is meant to do: take you places you’ve never been, take you into the minds and hearts of good people who do bad things — or make you uncomfortable, weird you out, shift your perspective on the ugly underside of humanity. And they can do the one thing that can sometimes be the difference between living and dying: send you out the door with a smile on your face and a little bit of hope for a better kind of life. That’s what Green Book does, not because it’s the job of cinema but because it’s one thing cinema CAN do.