Green Book is the kind of frustrating crowd-pleaser that makes having honest conversations about race in America so difficult. On the surface it is a serviceable odd couple tale about two men from vastly different worlds who learn to find common bridges to cross together. The film offers a lesson in humanity that, in theory, we should all learn from.
The problem is that the film falls into that lengthy canon of cinematic works that can only process racism through a predominantly white filter. Green Book lulls audiences into feeling as if they are opening their minds to topic of inequality without having to confront the issue in any meaningful way.
One only needs to reflect on the film’s title for an example of this. The Negro Motorist Green Book was a guidebook created by Victor Hugo Green to help African-American travelers navigate which restaurants and motels were safe spaces during the Jim Crow era. The book was a key tool for artists like jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) who embarked on concert tours throughout the southern states.
Unfortunately, Peter Farrelly’s film treats both the book, which is only consulted in passing, and the gravity of Dr. Shirley’s plight as an afterthought. Our guide for the film is not Dr. Shirley, but his driver and bodyguard Tony ”Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). A loving family man and occasional racist, Tony is a walking Italian stereotype who needs to find a source of income while the nightclub he is a bouncer at closes for renovations. As luck would have it, Dr. Shirley needs a chauffeur of his skill set for an 8-week period.
It is through Tony that we not only see that Dr. Shirley is a brilliant musician, but also get a glimpse of the danger that musician finds himself in for simply having dark skin. At one-point Tony even points out that he knows more about black music than Dr. Shirley does.
Since Farrelly rarely allows us to spend time with Dr. Shirley alone, outside of emphasizing that he was an outcast in multiple spheres, we never feel the full weight of emotions that comes with being considered a second-class citizen in one’s own homeland. The film is more concerned with the redemption of Tony than it is about exploring the lives of those saw The Negro Motorist Green Book as a necessary lifesaver when wading through dangerous waters.
The thing that keeps Green Book moving, and is its greatest strength, are the performances by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. Mortensen is charming as the brutish driver and Ali shows great comedic timing as the polished musician who must display dignity in the face of hate. Their chemistry sells the odd couple comedic moments and hints at what Green Book could have been if it truly cared about Dr. Shirley as a man and not merely a plot device.
I am sure Farrelly’s heart was in the right place, however, a complex individual like Dr. Shirley deserved more than being reduced to a passenger in what should have been his story. In a year where films like BlacKkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You are finding innovate ways to mix elements of comedy and drama into the discussion of racism, Green Book feels sorely out of touch.