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.

Latest

Norah Jones’s new beginning and return to New Zealand
104817 2019-04-21 00:00:00Z Music

Norah Jones’s new beginning and return to New Zeal…

by Russell Baillie

The jazz songstress is staying inspired by writing with others.

Read more
Bill Ralston: Only fundamentalist Christians should be hurt by Israel Folau
104814 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Social issues

Bill Ralston: Only fundamentalist Christians shoul…

by Bill Ralston

Israel Folau’s social-media post might condemn the Wallabies to Rugby World Cup hell, but the rest of us should ignore him.

Read more
What happens next with the Mueller report?
104863 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z World

What happens next with the Mueller report?

by Noted

Did Trump “corrupt” with intent?

Read more
The Heart Dances: Lifting the lid on the culture clash behind ‘The Piano’ ballet
104740 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Movies

The Heart Dances: Lifting the lid on the culture c…

by Russell Baillie

Documentary offers an intriguing look at the clash of artistic sensibilities behind adapting The Piano into a ballet.

Read more
How this remarkable native insect is being saved
104836 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Planet

How this remarkable native insect is being saved

by Jenny Nicholls

Principles of bird conservation are helping to save another remarkable native you’ve never heard of.

Read more
Environment Ministry 'unashamedly proud' of bleak report's honesty
104868 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Planet

Environment Ministry 'unashamedly proud' of bleak…

by RNZ

The Secretary for the Environment Vicky Robertson said she was proud of the report's honesty and it was an important stocktake for the country.

Read more
The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke than demonic
104712 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Television

The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke…

by Diana Wichtel

Diana Wichtel reviews a new American TV series based on the hit Kiwi comedy.

Read more
Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gender and identity
104230 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Books

Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gend…

by Brigid Feehan

In her latest novel, Julie Cohen traces the parallel male and female lives of a single character.

Read more