Green Book: A racially themed road-trip drama that stays within the white linesby James Robins
Green Book joins a long tradition of civil-rights era movies that barely scratch the surface.
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
Video: Universal Pictures
This article was first published in the January 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
A Taiwanese diplomat’s death in Japan has become a symbol of the consequences and dangers of disinformation.Read more
Research has shown that dieters’ attempts to resist eating certain foods appear to lead to cravings for those foods.Read more
Message manipulation using bots, algorithms and, now, AI software is making it harder to know what’s real – and threatening democracy itself.Read more
New Zealand is lining up to introduce a new tax on multinational companies that make money out of online goods and services in this country.Read more
Having polarising MPs like Paula Bennett and Maggie Barry leading the opposition to popular reforms could be kryptonite to the National Party.Read more
He penned a bestselling thriller, but as Michele Hewitson discovered, author Dan Mallory also proved himself to be a charmingly adept bullshit artist.Read more
How music can transport you back to your most memorable summer.Read more
Mike White heads up the Cromwell-Tarras road to merino and wine country.Read more