Director: Peter Farrelly
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
It’s starting to get repetitive to say that we are in the infant stage of a new era of cinema, one that is learning to embrace gender and race equality. But perhaps it’s that repetitiveness that will keep the motivation going and not allow progress to stall. Green Book is another such film that adds to the growing inclusion of people of an ethnic background other than white Caucasian, specifically African-American in this instance, and their stories, whether fictional, non-fictional or biographical. But are we also at risk of not bringing something new to the table and rehashing themes? Is Green Book a film that deals well with current themes, or just another well-meaning attempt to keep up the equality momentum?
Based on their real-life friendship and journey, Green Book tells the story of Italian-American Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Mortensen) and his employer-turned-lifelong friend Dr. Donald Shirley (Ali). Set in the racially turbulent time of the early 1960s (’62, to be exact) when the issue of racism was far more rampant than today, particularly in the southern states of the USA, the famous and slightly arrogant and flamboyant pianist Dr. Shirley looks to hire a driver for his upcoming tour through said southern states. After hearing good recommendations from numerous sources, he takes on the boisterous and ever-hungry Tony, who has extensive experience in dealing with “problems” and as a bouncer. Together they embark on this trip (with two other members of the Don Shirley Trio, who are white men) and get to know one another along the way, learning more about each other’s backgrounds, cultures, the state of the world at large and how they do or do not fit in.
Before it’s picked apart, it must be said that Green Book is certainly a strong film. The writing, particularly the characterisation, is interesting and humourous at times, the story is emotional in both heart-wrenching and heart-warming ways, and the performances are out of this world. However, the film has not been without its controversies, one being Don Shirley’s family insisting Don and Tony did not have a friendship. In this instance it must be remembered that this film has been created entirely from the perspective of the Vallelongas, with Tony’s son Nick having co-written the film, and ultimately there would had to have been some dramatic license taken in order to create something that is entertaining as well as informative and somewhat biographical. Of course, audiences do not like to be fooled when it comes to representation of important people and issues, so one must hope that Nick Vallelonga is sincere in his account of his father’s relationship with Don. The relationship we see on-screen is one of mutual education and eventual love and respect, and it builds gradually and beautifully.
Another controversy is that some believe Green Book does not take the issue of racism in the south as seriously or as in-depth as it perhaps could and should have. From another perspective however, the film should be cut some slack. As incredibly important as films that deal with racism head-on and intensely are (Get Out, Hidden Figures, BlacKkKlansman and The Help, to name just a few modern films), sometimes it’s also important to keep it simple and show plainly what was happening. This is how you keep the young and the uneducated interested and learning, even if it means repeating themes over and over again for years to come. And frankly you’d have to be made of stone to not be affected by the way Don Shirley is treated in the film. Of course Don and Tony’s meeting may not have actually occurred had it not been for the racism African-Americans were experiencing at the time (and still in many places today), but perhaps the larger backdrop of racism had to take something of a small step back in order for us as an audience to be able to focus on the theme of friendship and acceptance between the two men. The racism is still plain to see throughout their journey and the way Don is tormented even by those who actually hire him to play piano, but it doesn’t mean we need the backdrop of the Jim Crow South constantly on top of it. The thing about cinema is there’s plenty of room for more films, and future writers and directors will tackle these themes in other ways without a doubt.
Despite all this, it’s the characters and the actors’ performances that truly make this film what it is. Mortensen is outstanding as Tony, right down to his accent, his physicality (including intense weight-gain) and his very screen presence. He will make you laugh, he will make you cry, he will make you pay attention and then he will fold a pizza in half and bite into it to disgust you a little but also make you hungry. Mortensen is one of those rare actors whose versatility knows no bounds (this is the man who played ARAGORN, for crying out loud) and this role is no exception. It’s little surprise that he was nominated for numerous awards (including a Best Actor Academy Award, which was eventually scooped up by Rami Malek) and a shame he didn’t sweep the board with wins. At least, not this time around. It was a different story for Ali however, who picked up his second Oscar for Best Supporting Actor after his supporting role in 2016’s Moonlight. Ali’s portrayal of Don Shirley is not one he should be apologising for. If Don was really anything like the way Ali portrayed him, then he truly was a great man. Intriguing and sometimes rude, but certainly great. Ali creates a perfect balance of humour and intensity that has us loving the relationship between Tony and Don but also getting that emotional hit when he experiences the racism of the south. Add Cardellini to the trio, who does a beautiful job as Dolores, Tony’s wife, and you’ve got three of the sturdiest performances in recent years.
Green Book did go on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Upon seeing this film before the ceremony, I did not have my money on it to win. As wonderful and beautiful as it is, I didn’t think it stood a chance against the likes of Roma or The Favourite. And yet, many were surprised as Julia Roberts read out the title from the card. Some (*cough*spikelee*cough*) were very unimpressed at its win, perhaps believing something that boasted a stronger reception for its themes, such as BlacKkKlansman, should have picked up the evening’s top award. Some, certainly Green Book’s entire cast and crew, will be delighted, of course. It is ultimately a very strong, very likable film, so it does deserve its success, even if it comes with an element of surprise. The entire awards night saw a lot more diversity in its winners, both in ethnicity and gender, but in the end, you can’t please everyone. But there is a strong chance you will have a smile on your face after seeing Green Book (and maybe also feel hungry), Academy Award or not.