Green Book is Driving Miss Daisy if the eponymous character were an acclaimed black pianist and if Morgan Freeman’s were an Italian-American bouncer who found himself forced to drive her through a bad neighborhood, which for an African-American man in the 1960s corresponded, Green Book tells us, to roughly one third of the USA.
The film is inspired by (a disclaimer promising that promises not the factual truth, but the human one behind the events that the times call for) “Doc” Don Shirley’s (Mahershala Ali) concert tour in the Deep South. Well aware of the trouble that might arise along the road, he hires Frank Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), better known as “Tony Lip” for his silver tongue, as his driver and bodyguard. Tony himself is not too thrilled at the prospect of working for a black musician who behaves like an aristocrat; however, the ever more brutal humiliations Doc suffers on his tour bring the two closer together and force the driver to renegotiate his perspective.
Let’s not beat around the bush: Green Book is “about” racism more than it is a chronicle of a series of musical performances, with a generous pinch of intersectionality to make its liberal message less naïve. And although its light touches ensure that it is enjoyable in spite of its hefty subject matter, it is dubious that it will preach to anyone who does not already have at least one foot into the choir. Do we really need another film like that? To anyone asking, or too polite to do so, we should ask back “How come that a film like that might still be needed in 2019?” Racism has not disappeared, and if anything, Green Book is a useful reminder of that. And granted, part of the awards it will win will be due to its themes, but this should not overshadow the fact that managing to craft an entertaining picture around them is far from easy, especially in a time where we like to believe we are so tolerant that we feel no shame in finding calls to it a little annoying, without thinking outside our little bubble or the collective one of our milieu.
Casual racism, the “I’m not racist, but” brand of discrimination, or simple lack of concern are revealed to be untenable as soon as one gets to witness genuine suffering and mortification, and it goes to the filmmakers’ credit if they manage to actually make the package appealing to their intended audience. So we can only celebrate that a film so straight-forward in its agenda succeeds in keeping us hooked with delightful bursts of comedy. The vast majority of the humor arises from watching Tony’s supreme informality, which might be more properly be called “boorishness”, pitted against Doc’s poised, even snooty manners, but there are times when the butt of the joke is wokeness itself. This not only contributes to the levity of the film, it also has the specific function of preventing the fossilization of identities which threatens them even as they are being defended. Doc suffers because of what he is, but also because of what he is not enough: “not black enough, not white enough, not man enough.” So, while jokes about black people being overly fond of fried chicken may ruffle some feathers, taken in the context of a heavily anti-racist film they constitute a warning against turning seriousness and concern into suffocating rigidity, a rigidity which can also harm those it purports to defend: Don is so terrified of adhering to stereotypes that he represses parts of himself that just happen to match stereotypes, to his own unhappiness.
Of course, the film would hardly be half as engaging if the two leads were not such amazing actors. Viggo Mortensen shines as the embodiment of obnoxious informality, and is not afraid to make his character unsympathetic when the situation calls for it. Mahershala Ali’s wonderful performance tinges pain with elegance, resolve with insecurity. Director Peter Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber…) also manages to prove that he can acquit himself quite well with comedies a little weightier in theme than his past work without abandoning the genre. Nor should we forget some truly wonderful piano performances, as communicative as a beautifully written dialogue.
The one issue Green Book might face with its own agenda is just how bad the Deep South is by contrast with New York. Yes, the latter is a multiethnic metropolis, and yes, we do see racists there, though not particularly steadfast ones; but insisting that the true evil is located elsewhere, in locations of that are almost exotic to the characters and the audience alike, might undermine the effort put into showing that discrimination can survive anywhere. And while the historical picture painted is probably accurate, if not also understated, the human and contemporary truth that the fictionalization of the tour (“inspired by”) proposes to offer may come out of it a little undermined. However, in no way does this subtract from the experience of a film that can sneak witty dialogue that crosses styles of comedy and skates on the surface of emotion, without its most formulaic elements allowing it to plunge into the melodramatic.