The Academy Award season is officially upon us, which means that it’s time for an Oscar-friendly historical drama about race relations. Most recent years have one: “Hidden Figures” in 2016 or “The Help” in 2011 or “The Blind Side” in 2009. You probably know the drill. The film will be based on a true story. It will be set in the 1960s, in the American South or in both. It could vaguely be described as “inspirational.” There will be hugging, learning and tasteful crying. Your grandma will probably like it. If it’s not already clear, I am a little tired of this subgenre — except for “Hidden Figures,” which is wonderful — both for its abundant clichés and for its political implications (more on that later). I entered “Green Book” with a healthy amount of trepidation — it checks every single box listed above. My hesitation turned out to be both rightly and wrongly justified. “Green Book” is consistently charming and a guaranteed crowd pleaser. Yet it also continues some of the least appealing tropes of its genre, leading to a film that is both frustrating and breezily watchable.
At the film’s opening, Italian-American bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is struggling to pay bills after losing his job at a New York City nightclub. He is offered a job interview to drive for Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and he jumps at the chance. However, Tony is surprised to learn that Dr. Shirley is not a medical doctor — he is a world-renowned pianist with a doctorate in music — and Dr. Shirley is a black man. After learning this, Tony is initially reluctant to take the job (in one early scene, Tony discreetly throws away two cups used by black handymen in his home) but he eventually agrees. Over several weeks, Tony serves as Dr. Shirley’s driver, bodyguard and pseudo-liaison as Dr. Shirley tours the Deep South. Using the travel guide “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” Tony slowly forms a bond with Dr. Shirley while learning about the racism that affects every facet of Dr. Shirley’s day-to-day life.
At worst, films like this can perpetuate “white savior” narratives, where a heroic white protagonist rescues characters of color. These films, inadvertently or not, treat minorities as vehicles for a white person’s personal development, allowing white characters (and audiences) the chance to learn their own important life lessons.
“Green Book” honestly attempts to counteract some of these harmful tropes. The screenplay, by Nick Vallelonga (Lip’s real-life son), Brian Hayes Currie and director Peter Farrelly carries an honest affection for both Tony and Dr. Shirley. The film thoughtfully depicts Dr. Shirley’s alienation within his own community — he is forbidden from most white spaces and yet he finds little in common with the black people that he meets at segregated motels. While the details of “Green Book” will probably not surprise most viewers, they are still infuriating. Dr. Shirley performs to adoring crowds, but he cannot eat in the same venues that invite him to play. The most quietly affecting scenes show how even mundane interactions can destroy Dr. Shirley’s dignity or even threaten his life.
Much of the movie’s emotional impact can be credited to Ali’s acting. His performance is pitch-perfect, granting the movie a specificity and psychological insight that it would otherwise lack. Even Ali’s physicality — his rigid posture, his perfectly tailored clothes — speaks volumes. Dr. Shirley’s presence is practically regal, but that only adds to his loneliness and the disappointment that he feels at his limited life opportunities. Ali’s graceful performance updates tropes of the misunderstood genius usually reserved for straight, white men.
Mortensen is also effective, even if his performance is more conventional and broad. The film milks laughs from Tony and Dr. Shirley’s odd couple pairing — Tony is as sloppy and crass as Dr. Shirley is poised and polite. Much of “Green Book” is a straightforward road trip comedy, relying on the two actors’ winning chemistry. “Green Book” is genuinely funny — the last line is a particularly great punch line — but its mix of humor and pathos feels a little too slickly calibrated. One can sense an assistant just out of frame, directing the audience with cue cards — “laugh,” “gasp,” “applaud.” With less talented actors, the best moments of the film would be buried in schmaltz.
In even the most winning moments of “Green Book,” discomfort lurks behind the surface. In 2018, it’s worth asking who benefits from these types of narratives, and what messages they send about contemporary race relations. So many mainstream Hollywood movies about racism are set in the past, without making any coherent parallels to our current politics. It can be useful to understand common history, but it can also distance viewers from more nuanced, uncomfortable discussions of how race operates in 2018. “Green Book” gives plenty of comfort to white audiences — most people can make a clear distinction between their own behavior and segregationists in the 1960s. Its happy ending suggests that racism can be solved with a few honest discussions (and ones that place much more burden on black participants than white ones). It feels disingenuous — and maybe even dangerous — to keep making these uncomplicated, feel-good stories as racial politics deeply divide our county.
“Green Book”’s problems are amplified in comparison to recent films by prominent black writers and directors. Movies like “Get Out,” “Sorry to Bother You” and “Black Panther” do look at race through a contemporary lens, and their depictions are much more nuanced and thought-provoking. They are ferocious and relevant while “Green Book” is staid and generic. Viewers of all races have embraced these more contemporary movies, and such films are uninterested in placating white audiences or treating racism as a sin of the past. They are also creatively ambitious — they twist genre to provide social commentary and present genuinely surprising groundbreaking narratives. In a diverse landscape, rewarding “Green Book” feels like settling for less.
Ultimately, “Green Book” is a film by white men about a white man. The film is more about Tony’s story than Dr. Shirley’s — it is centered on Tony’s relationships, experiences and personal growth. Tony is less interesting to watch than Dr. Shirley, but he is more familiar, and even in the best parts of “Green Book,” familiarity wins the day.