Peter Farrelly | 130 mins | download (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English, Italian & Russian | 12 / PG-13
White people tell black people all about racism (again) in this year’s surprise Best Picture victor. Well, a surprise to some people — Roma was considered the frontrunner, but some of those with their finger on the pulse of Hollywood had already predicted Green Book’s success. One such pundit was Deadline’s Pete Hammond, a very pro-Green Book voice, although his post-show analysis seems to suggest it only won because of efforts by some Academy members to rig the vote against Netflix…
The reaction to Green Book has been an odd one. It was initially well received, winning the People’s Choice Award after its premiere at TIFF, and racking up acclaim from both critics (a Certified Fresh 79% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (8.3 on IMDb, which places it 128th on their Top 250 list). But the more widely it’s been seen and discussed, the more the tide has turned, especially as a more diverse audience has come to it. On its surface, the film is about overcoming racism — it’s the true story of a bigoted Italian American (Viggo Mortensen) serving as a driver for talented African American pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he goes on a concert tour of the Deep South during segregation — but it’s told entirely from the white guy’s perspective.
Coming at it from the perspective of a white guy also, I can see why people have liked the movie. It’s decently entertaining, with likeable performances from Mortensen and Ali, who have good chemistry. Their chalk-and-cheese relationship is funny without tipping over into outright comedy; and, naturally, the way they come to get along is Heartwarming. But it’s also a completely unchallenging movie. There’s just enough racism that you get to go “ooh, weren’t things unpleasant back then!” and be joyed when the characters overcome it in various ways, but not so much as to convey the actual outrage and horror of the era — or, indeed, the way it continues today. You’d think racism was more or less solved by this pair getting along back in ’62.
And that is a big part of the problem with the film. If you’d made this 20 or 30 years ago, that level of discussion might be alright — beginning to make old white men face up to what happened by softening it a little, by letting them see themselves in the white guy. Now, it all looks kinda naïve and simplistic. The more you dig into it, the more you realise Green Book has some casually racist elements of its own. I mean, the white guy even helps the black guy to become a better black guy! That’d be offensive in a fiction, but when these were real people it seems distasteful. I guess the counterargument might be that the black guy helps make the white guy better too, improving his ability to write love letters, as if that was some kind of mutual beneficial exchange. But it’s not equal, is it? Plus it’s again all from the white guy’s perspective: he’s fundamentally fine but, hey, a bit of a polish wouldn’t hurt, whereas the black guy needs a character overhaul that apparently only this straight-talking white guy can give him.
But hey, don’t just take it from this white guy. For instance, check out this piece by Justin Chang at the L.A. Times about the film and its reception in the wake of its big win. It digs into the film’s negatives and controversies better than I ever could.
A side note regarding the film’s title: it’s taken from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook to help African Americans travel in the segregated South by listing establishments that would accept them. They do use it in the film… briefly, about three times total. You feel like a movie depicting how and why the volume came into existence might’ve made for a more novel story.
In the end, I find Green Book a little difficult to rate. Coming to it as a white viewer, it’s an enjoyably safe trip into history, with charming characters on enough of a personal journey to give it a story arc, but not so much of one as to ever make it challenging. Similarly, it has a simplistic but not fundamentally negative theme (“racism is bad, yo”). In that mindset, it’s a pleasant, feel-good two hours. But, considering it’s 2019 not 1989, I can certainly see why some are clamouring for more nuanced engagement with these issues. I wouldn’t call it a bad movie, but it is an old fashioned one, and certainly not the best of what 2018 had to offer.