Green Book (2018)
One of the most cliché-filled movies of 2018 is also one of the most endearing. Loaded with road film tropes and framed as a ‘journey of two unmatched souls’, Green Book (2018)is a male-centric essay on 1960s American racism that resonates today.
Rough-neck Italian bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is out of work at the same time that Black-American virtuoso pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) wants to hire a driver for a deep South tour. Tony’s reputation precedes him, and Dr Shirley knows that the trip will encounter the sort of problems that a man like Tony can handle. Their first meeting is a parody of cultural difference: the haughty high-brow coloured man in a flowing African robe seated on a throne, meets an uncouth, uneducated, and racist Italian whose belligerence promises safety.
On-screen text provides city and state milestones for the trip, and the deeper south they drive, the more racial hostility they find. Along the way, Tony’s lack of culture slowly responds to the sensitive aesthetic of the acclaimed pianist, while Dr Shirley’s arrogance is softened by Tony’s connection with what matters to ordinary people (like fried chicken and the music of Little Richard). The Green Book in the film’s title actually existed and listed safe accommodation for Black American travellers. They are modest rooms compared with those the Carnegie Hall performer wants, but they are sanctuaries from racial vilification. At other times, the predictable scenarios of humiliation include being honoured for his playing while not being allowed to eat with white people or use their toilets.
The narrative arc is tied to the tour and remains low on dramatic tension or plot twists. This is not an action-rich film, rather it’s a two-hander character study that unfolds incrementally through the insightful banter between polar opposite personalities. Tony’s regular letters to his wife become a recurring motif of mutual support; they start out with monosyllabic banalities and progress into lyrical prose, coached by the literate musician. They begin to care for each other and, when the tour is over, both are unsurprisingly better people for the experience.
The entire weight of this film rests on an intelligently humorous script and sensitive delivery by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. With authenticity and emotional nuance, they have synergy that is rare between males from opposites worlds. The meta-message in Green Booklies in the sad necessity that films like this still need to be made to highlight America’s tensions with coloured and culturally different people. The echoes are deafening, with films like BlacKkKlansman(2018)and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) joining the chorus. Green Booksays more about today than the era it depicts.
Director: Peter Farrelly
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini