Review: Green Book

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Director: Peter Farrelly
Writer: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie
Composer: Kris Bowers
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
Genre: Biographical Comedy/Drama
Rating: PG-13

It’s weird seeing Viggo Mortenson in anything that isn’t Lord of the Rings but for the first time in a long while he’s back in a major Hollywood film with a new and powerful performance alongside his co-star Mahershala Ali in a powerful story about two men on a car trip through the deep south during the 1960s. It’s a quieter and gentler film about race than many of its contemporaries but it touches on powerful and relevant themes of prejudice, identity, and dignity. I’m not sure if it deserved a Best Picture win at the Oscars however.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Brawling, punching, threats of physical violence, and some bleeding; a gun is fired.

Language/Crude Humor: Severe language throughout including f***, b***s***, g**d***, s*** and several racial slurs.

Drug/Alcohol References: Smoking and drinking throughout.

Sexual Content: Characters are implied to be having sex, partial nudity, nothing graphic.

Spiritual Content: Tony’s family are depicted as traditional Italian Catholics.

Other Negative Content: Depictions of casual racism and prejudice.

Positive Content: Positive depiction of transcending hatred and prejudice.

Review

In a much surprising pick this year at the Oscars, the film that won Best Picture wasn’t any of the assumed and much discussed nominees but Green Book, a much more unexpected film that has sparked a lot of discussion since its release. While there is some notable controversy over the film’s win over more popular films like Roma, Blackkklansman, and Black Panther, it’s not an unreasonable assumption. It’s certainly the most Oscar-bait-y film in the lineup. It’s a message film that’s not super controversial. If there’s one thing that the Oscars love, it’s the appearance of important themes or politically topical edge without the bite (Spotlight, The King’s Speech, The Artist, Birdman, Driving Miss Daisy, etc.).

In that sense, Green Book is certainly the shyest film of the 2019 nominations. That said, there are some quiet joys to it that make it a very enjoyable experience in spite of its overall safeness. There’s a general agreement that it’s not the best film of 2018 overall but most people at the least agree that it’s a good watch. While there were certainly better and edgier films last year that tackled the topic of racism in America, I found myself quite besotted with this little underdog film. I would posit that it is quietly tackling many of the largest issues of modern life.

At the core of the film lay the questions of identity and dignity. Based (loosely) on a true story, Viggo Mortenson plays Tony Lip, an Italian man harboring some severe prejudices against people of color. He starts the film by throwing away two of his drinking glasses a pair of black repairmen used. After his regular job briefly gets shut down and he finds himself in need of money, he finds himself looking around New York City for work. Tony is a brutally stereotypical New York Italian man in the full sense of the notion. He’s a loudmouth and brutish, but a hard-working man with street smarts who is willing to do what it takes to support his family.

He has a strong sense of identity rooted in his nationality and regularly reflects on that throughout the film (including some of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes like one at a KFC). He meets Don Shirley, a black, gay musician who is planning a tour as a pianist across the deep south as part of a personal mission to outreach to people who have prejudices against him. The story is set at the height of the 1960s where racial tensions in the rural south are running high. Both characters are odd men out in this situation. Shirley needs a bodyguard and personal assistant and Tony has the talents that make him perfect for the job.

Their journey into the deep south is a dive into racial tension and identity. Alone in the car for the duration of the journey, the two have plenty of time to talk and confront one another on their casual prejudices. At first Tony carries some of his antipathy towards people of color but circumstances quickly make him a brother at arms with Shirley as the pianist is harassed by bar patrons and slammed with a barrage of casual abuses. Tony despises the southerners, seeing them as white trash and below him. He has no problem confronting them for coming after his client.

Tony’s casual prejudices slowly melt and transform as the two of them bond over the course of their months’ long journey. Ali’s character is more complex. As a cosmopolitan gay New Yorker, he’s very alienated from the identity he feels society expects him to have. In one scene, his car breaks down near a field where black farmers are working and a fence literally separates them. His life experience is so radically different from theirs as a rich musician. Part of his arc comes down to finding some validation from other black people from different walks of life while questioning his treatment at the hands of the rich southerners who casually segregate him from them in horrible ways.

The movie ultimately becomes about desperate messy people who learn to find solace in friendship and move past prejudice. Tony Lip at the end of the film is a completely different character who has learned to embrace Don Shirley as a person. Shirley ends up achieving a semblance of what he wants and builds a powerful relationship that allows him some respite from his lonely life. While some have criticized a film set against the 1960s as downplaying current racial issues I would contend that the opposite is true. Clearly, a film like this is meant to face contemporary problems. It’s a reaction to modern questions of identity and casual racism. It’s just taking a softer approach to the topic than other films like last year’s Sorry to Bother You or Blackkklansman. In a time when politics are deeply divided, stories about building bridges and bringing people together become more valuable than ever. I appreciate Green Book for its quiet hope and dignity.


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Tyler Hummel

Tyler Hummel is a Nashville-based freelance journalist, a College Fix Fellow, and a member of the Music City Film Critics Association. He has contributed to Geeks Under Grace, The Living Church, North American Anglican, Baptist News Global, The Tennessee Register, Angelus News, The Dispatch, Voeglin View, Hollywood in Toto, Law and Liberty, The Federalist, Main Street Nashville, Leaders Media, and the Catholic Herald of Milwaukee.

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