Tonight is the 91st Annual Academy Awards! And all day today we’ll be bringing you a rundown of each category as well as reviews of the nominated films. Next up, we’re looking at Green Book.
We live in an age where we often ask ourselves how we can be better people and how we can improve things so that everyone is viewed as equal. We’re faced with questions about what is right and what is wrong, and the answers are clear and obvious to anyone who isn’t a prejudiced bigot. But the world is full of darkness and people who hate others for no reason other than differences in skin color, origin, religion, gender identity, or any other assortment of characteristics. There are ways to combat racism, and there are ways to change things. Director Peter Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary) and his co-writers, Nick Vallelonga (Vigilante Diaries) and Brian Currie (Two Tickets to Paradise), have decided to give their take on how to end racism with the film Green Book. The problem is that it’s not exactly the best take.
Green Book stars Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, an Italian-American man who works as a bouncer of sorts at the Copacabana in New York. When the Copa closes down for refurbishments, Tony gets a job working as a driver and bodyguard for Dr. Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali. They travel into the South for a concert tour featuring Dr. Shirley’s band, the Don Shirley Trio. Over the course of the film, Tony and “Doc” form a friendship that helps Tony change his racist ways. The idea here is that if two people can see each other as people, despite their differences, then we can end racism and prejudice. But that’s not exactly true.
The film means well, and it’s nice to see Tony change his ways over the course of the film, but it’s not enough. Dr. Shirley is treated horribly throughout the film. He’s told he can’t eat, shop, or stay at certain places. At one venue where the band is set to play, they don’t supply the kind of piano he requests in his contract and say it shouldn’t matter because he’s just a black guy (the character in question uses much more vulgar language in his description). Through it all, Tony doesn’t get why Dr. Shirley puts up with the racism that he’s exposed to. Tony threatens and, at times, attacks people for saying horrible thing about Dr. Shirley, but Dr. Shirley tries to teach him that it’s better to protest these responses with nonviolent resistance. It’s clear that Dr. Shirley is used to this type of treatment, and has resolved to act nonviolently and try to calm situations for his own safety.
The film and its creators don’t seem to realize that in the end, they’re creating examples of why their theory to strike out racism doesn’t work. Tony is a caricature, but he realizes early on that it’s not right to treat Dr. Shirley the way he’s being treated. That being said, he’s still very overtly racist. A lot of it is laughed off comical ignorance. There’s a scene where Tony gets Dr. Shirley to eat Fried Chicken for the first time, which can be amusing thanks to Tony’s ignorance, but it doesn’t make it any better. Saying that these two become friends because they’ve been through this experience doesn’t prove to me that Tony wouldn’t call another black person he didn’t like any number of derogatory terms. He went through this one experience and can now say, “Hey, I have a Black Friend, so I get it!” But that’s not how this works.
Green Book is funny at times and has some heart, and honestly, it’s entertaining and is trying its best. But the message here is so muddled that it brings the film down significantly. It’s clear that this is a film made by white people who want to say, “Hey, we’re not racist. We know what’s right and wrong.” Yet they don’t understand the deeper threads of racism, even when it’s mentioned in their own film. Dr. Shirley plays at venues where the white owners won’t let him use the restroom inside or eat inside with other guests. He does this to try to break down barriers and to (hopefully) show that black men and women are inherently valuable. But he doesn’t piss in an outhouse. He goes back to his hotel to use the restroom, then comes back to the venue to finish performing, forcing the guests to have to wait for him. Establishing that he’ll live in this world, and he’ll abide by their rules, but he’s not going to play the fool.
This film could have easily told the deeper truths of fighting racism. It could have shown how we do need to do more than understand each other as people, that just because a white guy has one black friend doesn’t mean he’s completely destroyed his prejudice. But it never even tries to do that. It’s completely one-note, and in the end, that one note isn’t enough. The film essentially is saying, “Here’s the lesson Tony learned in 1960, and you should learn it too.” But we’re FAR past that now. Yes, there are people who still need to learn the lessons that Tony does, but there needs to be more. And saying “This is the way we fix it all” is never going to be enough. If it was enough, we’d already be living in a much better world–a world where this lesson wouldn’t need to be taught.
Green Book is currently playing in select theaters.