With the Oscars season in full swing, movie-goers have been treated to a great line-up of films nominated for best picture. This is often the norm around this time of year as production companies aim to get as much publicity and marketing across for potential winners of the movie industry’s most prestigious prize. In addition to this, movies that, more often than not, get the shoo-in are period pieces dealing with race and discrimination or about one or other war. It won’t hurt your chances if the movie was based on actual events. Green Book is one such film.
Green Book is a period film based on a true story that follows the unlikely friendship of Tony “Lip” Vallelonga and Dr Don Shirley. Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a stereotypical, white Italian-American living in New York, well-known for his expertise as a competent bouncer at various nightclubs. Dr Shirley (Mahershala Ali), on the other hand, is a concert pianist of African-American descent.
The film covers the story about a road trip the pair undertake across the Midwest and Deep South, where Vallelonga takes a part-time job driving Dr Shirley from town to town, accompanied by the guide, the Green Book, nicknamed “travelling while black” by Vallelonga.
Vallelonga is a working-class citizen and admittedly racist compared to the highly-educated and prim Dr Shirley.
The journey starts off well enough, but soon becomes more and more tricky the further South they travel, encountering various forms of discrimination that will leave anyone seething. The duo challenges the stereotypes while also fighting their own inner demons.
The film has a solid backstory, made more visceral by the simple fact that it’s based on actual events, notwithstanding the typical Hollywood glamorisation. Green Book is directed by Peter Farrelly, who is well-known for his comedies, such as There’s Something About Mary, which is evident throughout the film. Despite the touchy subject matter, the film still manages to through in good humour to break the tension as well as establish a bond between the two lead characters. The majority of the humour stems from the two distinct personalities, one being an untamed, every day Joe, while the other is a lot more prim and proper, and somewhat of a germophobe.
While Green Book deals with the raw and uneasy topic of racism, I feel that it’s sometimes awkward having to challenge some of it within a simple review. Although I’m not undermining the film or the topics at hand, I do feel that some it does play out as a bit of a cliché. But that’s not the biggest gripe I have about the film.
As stated in the film’s title, the movie is in some form about the guide book to travelling around the U.S. as a person of colour. Apart from a few glances at the book every so often, we never get to understand the true nature of the guide itself. Yes, the film is more to do with the relationship between Vallelonga and Dr Shirley but, due to the title, I would have expected we get more in the way of the efforts one has to go to in order follow it, attempting to avoid being arrested or even killed as a result of being in the wrong place and the wrong time. Such were the consequences of “driving while black.” In addition to that, the guide also underwent a series of more than 20 published editions over a span of more than 30 years, making it a truly meaningful part of everyday travel for minorities.
Where the film does get it right is telling the tale of a well-respected musician of colour, who is hailed during his live performances at various institutes and even the homes of the white privileged, only to be discarded as just another black man as soon as the performance comes to a close.
As already mentioned, Green Book‘s leading actors, Mortensen and Ali, pretty much make the film. Their charisma and chemistry fully immerse you as a viewer as we get to see the relationship build from mere acquaintances to the start of their long-term friendship. Mortensen is almost unrecognisable compared to the days of leading the charge as King Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings.
Another of the aspects of the film, which is built around the eventual friendship, is that both men, while initially steadfast in their thoughts and views, are open enough to learn from one another. It’s not the blanket cure for all types of prejudice, but it’s a timely reminder that understanding where each person comes from, both physically and emotionally, goes a long way to improving circumstances.
While Green Book explores quite a bit throughout its runtime, I can’t help but feel there’s quite a lot of missing detail that we, as the viewers, would have appreciated. For starters, there’s the story of Dr Shirley’s failed marriage, as well as his estranged brother, which is touched upon but never fully explored.
I enjoyed that the film also introduces clips from some of the performances, as well as another uncontracted performance at a local bar where Dr Shirley plays classical piano to the appreciation of the patrons. Green Book isn’t perfect, but there’s more than enough from the two performances by the leading actors to make this a worthwhile watch.
Green Book is a heartfelt film with a truly great message and an amazing cast. Sadly, it also has a number of sappy clichés.