Green Book (2018)

2019 #26
Peter Farrelly | 130 mins | download (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English, Italian & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Green Book

Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 3 wins

Won: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Original Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Best Editing.

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.

Admire the white guy

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.

Write this instead...

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.

3 out of 5

Get Out (2017)

2017 #104
Jordan Peele | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Get Out

Writer-director Jordan Peele’s timely horror (or, according to some people, horror-comedy — I’ll come to that) has topped various “best of year” critics polls, including those in Sight & Sound and Empire magazines, and is now part of the awards season conversation, having been nominated for Best Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes and is many people’s pick for an Oscar nod too. It’s a good film… but is it that good?

It’s the story of a guy, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), going to meet his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. The only complication is that Chris is black and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), is white. But it’s okay, her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) are very liberal and keen to be welcoming to their daughter’s fella, even though they’ve accidentally arrived the same weekend as a large gathering of the family’s friends. And there’s something strange going on with their black housemaid and gardener too…

Get Out unfurls with a slow-burn tension, where you can’t be sure that Chris isn’t just being paranoid. Well, we can be sure, because we know we’re watching a horror movie. In terms of that genre, it’s effectively creepy without indulging in many outright scares — it foregrounds an encroaching sense of unease rather than pure terror. It’s as much about the mystery of what’s going on, and in that regard it’s neatly littered with clues that either you can piece together or, with hindsight (or a second viewing), marvel at all the little blatant hints you missed.

Everybody loves Chris

The aspect that’s attracted so much praise beyond the usual genre constraints is its commentary on contemporary race-related issues. What it has to say is clear without being batter-you-round-the-head obvious. It satirises the casual racism of white, liberal, “woke” (as I believe the kids are saying nowadays) people, with a particular view on something akin to cultural appropriation — the point where white acceptance or praise of black people and their culture runs into being racism, just not of the ‘traditional’ sort. It’s more nuanced and current than your old-fashioned KKK-ing.

It’s also where we run into the “comedy-horror” point. We usually think that satire = comedy, but Get Out demonstrates it doesn’t have to; or, at least, not in an overt, laugh-a-minute kind of way. I don’t think the comedy-horror label is accurate because, while it’s undoubtedly satirical, it’s not outright comedic. There’s a funny character/subplot about the antics of Chris’ friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), but as he’s not actually very funny I don’t think that lends much credence to the idea this is a comedy. There’s the odd other laugh here and there, but no more than you’d expect from any movie that wasn’t concerned with being po-faced for every single second. In other words, this isn’t Shaun of the Dead.

Everything's FINE

As a film it’s mostly well made, with good performances in particular from Kaluuya, Whitford, and Betty Gabriel as the family’s maid. The most effective moment comes at the end, an aspect that was changed after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which now effectively plays on the audience’s expectations for what’s about to happen. That said, while there’s the odd moment like that to praise Peele’s direction, I didn’t think it was especially striking on the whole. The film’s certainly not without glaring faults, like the grating ‘comedy’ character I already mentioned, or a deluge of exposition at the start of act three that’s disappointingly clunky.

This is why I’m not convinced by Get Out’s presence in those best-of-year conversations. Personally, I think it’s merely the timeliness of what it has to say that has put it in that position — perhaps, if we’re being cynical, even just white critics/voters being keen to signal their approval of its message. Or maybe the way it encapsulates and comments on things that are very pertinent in society right now is merit enough? Whether it’s the year’s best film or not, it deserves to be seen, not only for its commentary on contemporary issues, but simply as an entertaining horror-mystery.

4 out of 5

Get Out is available on Sky Cinema from today.

The Searchers (1956)

2014 #24
John Ford | 114 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U

The SearchersWesterns don’t come more renowned than this Ford-Wayne collaboration about the years-long hunt for a girl kidnapped by Native Americans.

Alongside the usual Western thrills, peerlessly executed, it touches on themes of obsession and racism in a way deserving of more comment than this. Wayne plays an ‘upstanding’ man with dubious morals; an anti-hero for sure, almost villain at times. Works for me, tallying with my view of him more than a white-hatted paragon would.

Epic in scope without a patience-trying running time, and artistically shot without being tryingly artsy, The Searchers is old-style blockbuster filmmaking of the highest order.

5 out of 5

The Searchers was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Guess Who (2005)

2010 #66
Kevin Rodney Sullivan | 101 mins | TV | 12 / PG-13

Readers may remember that I opened my Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner review with a joke about how the film might be ruined if its premise was being made today. Cue reactions along the lines of ho ho ho, wouldn’t it be dreadful, thank God that’s not happened, etc.

Except, as was helpfully pointed out to me on Twitter, it has.

Here, the situation is reversed: nice black girl brings home white guy to meet parents. White guy isn’t Ben Stiller or Adam Sandler, as I suggested, but Ashton Kutcher, who more or less falls into the same category. The family being visited is still rich, albeit black, but rather than Sidney Poitier’s Surprisingly Respectable black man, Kutcher is a recently-jobless white man. I’m sure there’s some further table-turning to be read into this, but, look, it’s a film starring Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher — it’s not going to be a race relations paean, is it?

Indeed, Guess Who is pretty much what you’d expect it to be. The plot isn’t a direct copy of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, preferring to take the gist of the concept and a few of the story beats and surround them with a bunch of Funny Situations. I won’t bother you with details; suffice to say, the film does manage the odd laugh or smile, increasingly so as it goes on (though this may be because I was getting increasingly inebriated, it’s a tough call). The ending is suitably lovey-dovey, sentimental, and, I think many would add, hogwash. Should you be a sucker for a (modern-style) rom-com it may well be up your street; most viewers need not apply.

Mac and Kutcher play the roles they always play— No, actually, in fairness, I can’t say that: I think I’ve only seen Mac in the three Ocean’s films and I can’t think of anything I’ve seen Kutcher in (was he in The Butterfly Effect, or was that someone else equally interchangeable?) So, they play the roles I’ve always assumed they play, which is at least as bad. Zoe Saldana, on the other hand, seems to have a magic ability to raise the quality of almost every scene she’s in — even Mac and, to a higher level, Kutcher benefit from her skills to inject some genuine emotion into a film otherwise dependent on familiar or predictable gags.

The race debate is cursory. Maybe that’s a good thing — one could argue it shouldn’t be allowed to be relevant today, even if it still is — but occasionally there’s the sense that the filmmakers are actually trying to do more with the issue. Suffice to say, they don’t succeed. The gap is filled with additional comic interludes and mishandled subplots — in the latter camp, Kutcher’s hunt for a new job, and issues with the father who abandoned him — but they do little to make up for it. They’re certainly not a direct replacement, but nor do they offer an adequate alternative, particularly as they go begging for any kind of relevant point.

One scene, in which Mac goads Kutcher into telling racist black jokes at the dinner table, comes close to tackling the awkwardness of the issue. It’s ceaselessly predictable, naturally, but it also makes overtures at the issue of whether these jokes are funny, racist, or both. Most of the rest, however, is “father doesn’t approve of daughter’s boyfriend” schtick that has nothing to do with race. It’s as recognisable from TV sitcoms — Friends did it with Bruce Willis, for just the first example that comes to mind — as it is from movies. Again, maybe ignoring the race factor here is a good thing; but if you’re going to foreground it in your concept and promotion, you ought to be dealing with it, not using it as a way in to familiar sequences.

Though it takes a while to settle in, Guess Who does seem to improve as it goes on. Even though it more or less abandons the race issue, and many of the setups are familiar, it has its moments. Still, it never hits comedic heights, and doesn’t even attempt serious dramatic ones, and it’s not even close to being a patch on the original. The pros aren’t enough to make the film worth your time, but at least they stop it being a total disaster.

2 out of 5

Guess Who is on Film4 tomorrow, Friday 9th, at 6:55pm.
The inspiration for this, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, is on BBC Two tomorrow (Sunday 3rd August 2014) at 2:40pm.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

2010 #63
Stanley Kramer | 104 mins | TV | PG

In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a white girl falls in love with a black man and brings him home to meet the parents. You can almost imagine this premise still being launched today, as one of those dreadful ‘comedies’ Hollywood pumps out every year, in which the parents are outrageous racists — played by some ageing stars who should really know better — and one of the young couple is a bit accident-prone and played by someone like Ben Stiller or Adam Sandler.

Thank God for the ’60s, then, when such a plot meant this was a brave film to make. Lest we forget, this is still the era of Martin Luther King Jr. battling for equality (he was assassinated while the film was still in cinemas) and when interracial marriage was still illegal in 14 states (though that was ruled unconstitutional between filming and release). Hollywood may be known for its liberal (in US terms) politics, but it’s not always so, which makes the outcome of the film — will they or won’t they be given permission to marry? — a constant guessing game.

To write off this genuine uncertainty of outcome — a factor that’s quite rare, now and then, I think — as just a product of the film’s era is distinctly unfair, however. The Oscar-winning screenplay is truly excellent. Taking place over just a few hours on one day, it’s effectively just a series of conversations between various people (no wonder it was later turned into a stage play), but there’s never the sense that that’s all it is. The characters are fully three dimensional, thanks to the writing and excellent performances from every cast member, though Katharine Hepburn’s Oscar-winning turn is the stand out.

It could easily have been a simplistic message movie — these people are liberal, these people are racist, etc — but instead there’s complexity at every turn. There’s the liberal white parents who never expected to find themselves in this situation, and suddenly are struggling with their own ideologies; or the black characters, who you might think would be eager to move ‘up in the world’ but actually react even worse to the idea; or the Catholic priest being one of the few characters unwaveringly in favour of the union. And even then, these characters could just become ciphers for the arguments and debates; but they’re not, they’re characters, having believable reactions, and from this comes the debate.

Funny, dramatic, emotional, romantic, thoughtful, intelligent — there’s little more you could ask of a film. Exemplary.

5 out of 5

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is on BBC Two today, Sunday 3rd August 2014, at 2:40pm.