A Second Look at ‘Green Book’

 

Shauna Fox takes another look at the “joyous and sorrowful” Green Book.

Green Book: 2019 Golden Globe winner for Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy), and Best Screenplay. It is a film deserving of every one of these awards.

Named after a travel book written for black people to use to safely travel around America, Green Book will make you laugh, cringe, and sympathise with its two male leads: Viggo Mortensen (Tony Vallelonga) and Mahershala Ali (Dr. Donald Shirley). Mortensen plays Tony, an Italian-American living in the Bronx; out of work due to the temporary closure of the Copacabana, Tony is invited to interview for a job chauffeuring renowned pianist Dr. Donald Shirley. Shirley is going on tour with his two colleagues (the three making up the Don Shirley trio) playing for elite communities in the Deep South. It is important to note that this story is set in the 1960s; a time when being black in America was not appreciated. Unfortunately, such sentiments still ring true in America today, making this film all too current.

Green Book is both a joyous and sorrowful film, capturing the humour of an unlikely friendship, and the sadness from watching the effects of deeply ingrained racism. This takes on the theme of a buddy road trip, as Tony and Don travel through Pittsburgh, Alabama, Kentucky, and many more Southern states, pushing each other’s buttons along the way, but eventually gaining a respect for each other that, according to the post film credits, would last the rest of their lives. Green Book is supposedly based on true events, and one of the screenwriters happens to be Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga.

Tony has a slightly skewed moral compass, believing that if something is available for him to take, he will, and using violence or bribery to get him through ‘tricky’ situations. He is racist, curses extensively, believes many people to be ‘pricks’, spits in public, flings his rubbish out the car window, and eats like an animal. Trust me, he is a charming, and lovable character despite his… shortcomings.

Don, on the other hand, believes in doing everything with the utmost dignity; he is articulate, always immaculately dressed… and lonely. While Tony has a large extended family, Don is alone in the world, with nothing but his music to give him purpose. To show the contrast between the men, the film’s soundtrack is filled with music and constant talking while Tony is in Don’s life. As soon as Don is left alone, the silence is deafening and stark. It is one of the best ways of showing the difference between these two men, without the need of the visual to compound that difference.

The sharing of experiences between these men is utterly heart-warming, both teaching one another, learning from each other, some moments are completely hilarious, most of which come from Tony’s lack of care about what people think of him.

There are so many enjoyable elements to this film: the constant annoyance that Tony is to Don, who sometimes allows himself to enjoy his companion’s odd antics, and sometimes acts like Tony’s parent; the soundtrack playing throughout is the perfect accompaniment to the film; and the reversal of the usual for the time the film is set – a white man being employed by a black man – as Tony says: “I live on the streets, you live on a throne. I’m blacker than you!”

The situation is seen as odd to white and black alike, the whites questioning Tony’s need to be employed by an ‘eggplant’, and the blacks staring at Don, knowing that he does not belong to them by the way he dresses, and the car he is being driven in (a stylish 1962 Cadillac – it gave me car envy). However, it is this reversal of roles that makes this film, allowing for both men to re-consider their prejudices; Tony realising that black people do not deserve to be segregated; and Don realising that not all white people are dismissive of him. Unfortunately though, so many are, as Don has to constantly deal with harassment, discrimination from the police, not being able to eat in the same restaurants or use the same facilities as white people – all this on just a two month road trip. The dignity with which he holds himself is astonishing; he may be invited to perform for the white people, but he cannot pretend that he is one of them – there is a line that even the most beloved pianist cannot cross. Don is an outcast, dismissed by whites, shunned by blacks, belonging to neither, the price he paid for greatness. During so many of Don’s performances, the passion and anger evident on his face as he plays is heartbreaking, knowing that it is there because of the racism against him. The expressiveness in his face and body which Mahershala Ali gives to this role highlights the hurt and loneliness that his character suffers, and it was a performance worthy of the award he won. Mortensen lost out on the award for Best Actor, instead given to Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody (which I cannot argue with); however, he was very much deserving of an award, perhaps the Oscars is where he’ll have more luck. What is interesting about the awards is that Ali was put into the supporting role of the film. While the story does follow Tony’s point of view, and Don does not enter until about fifteen minutes into the film, they are both leading men, both men command the screen. It begs the question why Mahershala Ali is reduced to a supporting role by the Hollywood Foreign Press?

This film has been rather hush hush here in Ireland, with nothing heard about it until it picked up the most Golden Globe wins of the night; however, having now seen it, this is a film that must be watched, both for its delightful humour and its unfortunate relevance today. Green Book can stand proudly alongside other films that highlight black discrimination, such as Hidden Figures, and The Help. Green Book is a visually beautiful, well-written, powerful piece of cinema; a film that needs to be watched not once, but many, many times.

Share

Review: Green Book

 

DIR: Peter Farrelly • WRI: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly • PRO: Jim Burke, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Charles B. Wessler • DOP: Sean Porter • ED: Patrick J. Don Vito • DES: Tim Galvin • MUS: Kris Bowers • CAST: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini

Surprise winner at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival – beating the much hyped A Star is Born, If Beale Street Could Talk and Roma – was Green Book from Peter Farrelly, director of Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. However, its victory is less shocking having seen the movie, which feels like an old-school throwback to the feel-good comedy-dramas the Oscars used to reward.

Based on a true story and set in 1962, Viggo Mortensen stars as Frank ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga, a New York bouncer and famed ‘bullshit artist’. After his nightclub is closed for renovations, he lands a job as driver and security for famed black pianist Don Shirley (Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali). Together the two tour America’s deep south where Shirley faces repeated racist abuse. The title derives from the 20th century guidebook for black travellers to help them find motels and restaurants which would accept them.

Though featuring handsome period décor, Green Book is not the most formally ambitious film. Instead, it’s essentially a character piece, centring on the chalk and cheese relationship between Don and Tony. On this level, the comedy-drama soars. If you are going to cast someone to play the biggest American-Italian stereotype ever – although to be fair the real-life Lip did wind up being cast in The Sopranos and writing a cookbook called Shut Up and Eat! – get Viggo Mortenson. The Lord of the Rings actor went impressively method with the role putting on 50 pounds. It shows with the Danish-American feeling remarkably comfortable in his character’s skin, even getting an opportunity to flex his fluency in Italian.

Meanwhile, Mahershala Ali – whether he is playing a politician in House of Cards or a comic-book villain in Luke Cage – just exudes intelligence. He is perfect casting to play this incarnation of Shirley, a savant-like prodigy whose intellect and musical abilities alienate him from virtually everybody. Because of his wealth and education, he faces hostility from black people in a lower-social-strata. On top of this, he endures racism from the ordinary white person. The only people who seem to accept him are the rich people for whom he performs. But even then, the race element creeps in. He is not allowed to eat in the restaurants he plays, banned from using the same toilets as the guests. Ali’s performance is like a cocktail – a combination of self-confidence, quiet sadness and bubbling anger, the latter just building throughout the film.

Green Book is a film whose rough edges have been sanded off to appeal to a broader demographic. Unlike Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit set in the same decade, one doesn’t really get the sense of the fear a black person would feel being pulled over by a white cop – particularly in the Deep South. Instead, the movie is more focused on exposing the hypocrisy and pointlessness of the US’ Jim Crow laws.

As the movie flinches away from the horrors of life for black people of the era, it leans more into the potential for comedy in the odd-couple pairing of Don and Tony. While this could be cack-handed in lesser hands, Farrelly, along with co-writers Nick Vallelonga (Lip’s son) and Brian Hayes Currie, make the relationship emotionally engaging. The two begin as polar opposites, Shirley repulsed by Lip’s lack of manners, Lip irritated by Shirley’s condescending tone. However, as the movie continues, they grow closer with Don admiring Tony’s courage and Tony becoming awed with Don’s musical ability and increasingly repulsed with the way he is treated.

Occasionally, the bantering sways too broad – jokes about ‘Titsburgh’ and fried chicken could have been trimmed out – but for the most part the script is snappy. Some moments – like watching Mortensen fold-up an entire pizza and eat it like a giant calzone – are laugh out funny. And the emotional beats, such as Don helping Tony to write more elegantly to his wife (Linda Cardellini, proving once again she is quietly one of the Best Actresses around) tug on the heartstrings.

Everything about Green Book – despite the social issues of the time in which the drama is set – is designed to be an easy watch. And it is. It suffers from an overstretched third act. It annoyingly tries to add more tension and work in a scene which could be summed up as ‘not all white people’ involving a nice Caucasian cop. The latter is irritating given the fact that Tony as well as the white members in Don’s musical trio already serve to make that point. However, aside from this, Green Book’s greatest credit is it is 130 minutes long but feels like 90.

Stephen Porzio

129 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
Green Book is released 1st February 2019

 

Share