Green Book: A racially themed road-trip drama that stays within the white lines

by James Robins / 20 January, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - Green Book movie review

Green Book joins a long tradition of civil-rights era movies that barely scratch the surface.

The 1967 Best Picture Oscar went to In the Heat of the Night, a muggy potboiler in which Rod Steiger’s Southern redneck cop shed his prejudice by working alongside Sidney Poitier’s black detective. That film set a precedent. It became the model for Hollywood pieties about racism in America: a fantasy of conciliation and harmony – can’t we all just get along? Novelist and critic James Baldwin saw through it. In the Heat of the Night, he said, was astounding for “the speed with which it moves from one preposterous proposition to another”, searching for ways to make a racist white police chief a hero.

Had he been alive in 1990, Baldwin might have excoriated Driving Miss Daisy, too – another Best Picture winner. The pattern endures: The Help, Hidden Figures. Now Best Picture rumours swirl around Green Book, a film which sits snugly in this tradition. Its premise is pulled from the past, and purports to be true: “Doc” Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a star classical and jazz pianist, plots a concert tour through the segregated South sometime in the 1960s. To be his bodyguard and chauffeur, Shirley hires Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American mobster who smokes while he eats and is introduced chucking out crockery used by two black workmen in his house.

The titular Green Book, which was a mass-produced tourist guide listing safe accommodation for African-Americans, barely features. Shirley suffers the occasional snub and humiliation in between concerts. But we’re not going to get a determined look at systemic racism here; that might get in the way of the buddy-movie roadtrip. By the end of it, Lip has unlearned his bigotry by merely seeing eye to eye (as if that was the solution to all ills) – but not before he condescends to the vastly superior man in his back seat by introducing him to Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, and – wait for it – fried chicken.

This is especially galling when you consider that the film was partly written by Lip’s son, Nick Vallelonga. It would be slightly more forgivable if Green Book was halfway decent as drama. It’s not. As directed by Peter Farrelly of the Farrelly brothers, onetime kings of crude comedy, it comes full of awkward pauses, cringeworthy performances and contrived confrontations. Only Ali salvages some kind of dignity as Shirley.

Like most of the films mentioned earlier, Green Book is set in the civil-rights era, a period of incredible fracture and violence. But, like those others, it feels divorced from the present to imply, in essence, that the worst is behind us, problem solved. We all know it isn’t.

IN CINEMAS FROM JANUARY 24

★1/2

Video: Universal Pictures

This article was first published in the January 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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