By Preston Wilder
Any number of self-righteous people, from Spike “bad call” Lee to the edgier type of film critic, are treating Green Book’s Best Picture Oscar win with a disdain usually reserved for scraping something nasty off one’s shoe. There’s a strong temptation to fall in line, or (even stronger) to be a dissenting opinion – but the only clear position is, frustratingly, somewhere in the middle. This is a crowd-pleaser with a good deal of charm, a sense of dignity and decency, and a common-sense, working-class vibe that can feel like an oasis of sanity in neurotic times. But it’s also overlong, soft-centred and overly diffuse; in the end, it’s not really about anything.
Many have invoked Crash (2005), another much-hated film about race in America that also won the top Oscar, but in fact the general dynamic is identical to an older Best Picture winner, In the Heat of the Night from 1967 (granted, it’s disheartening that not much seems to have changed in 52 years): a white racist starts to work with – or in this case for – an exceptional black man, comes to appreciate him, and becomes, along the way, a bit less racist. The only flaw in this argument (and one reason why Green Book is essentially toothless) is that Tony Villalonga (Viggo Mortensen) isn’t really so racist, maybe because the film is co-written by the real Tony’s son, Nick Villalonga.
His culture is racist, certainly, Italian-American culture in New York circa 1962. He himself seems initially super-racist, throwing away (!) two glasses after his wife lets a couple of black handymen drink from them. “Do you foresee any issues in working for a black man?” asks Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) just a couple of scenes later – and we certainly foresee some major issues in Tony becoming Don’s chauffeur, but money, it appears, fixes everything. $125 a week buys a lot of tolerance, which already feels like a cop-out – but it’s not just the money, Tony’s whole demeanour is relaxed and ebullient, which you wouldn’t expect in a racist forced to drive while a snooty black man sits in the back, giving him instructions. Their only disagreement concerns his smoking, which Don takes exception to; Tony grudgingly puts the cigarette out – then takes a hearty, animal revenge by eating the sandwich his wife made for Don.
That detail is central to the movie’s conception of its lead character: a simple man, brawn over brain, a man of huge appetites, ignorant opinions and a kind of good-natured decency that allows him to bond with Don anyway – especially because Don is an artist, a great pianist, and Tony appreciates his genius, despite not otherwise having an artistic bone in his body (another detail that feels like a cop-out). Don, on the other hand, is a tortured soul, lonely in his brilliance, standing aloof from other black people but quietly despised by the rich white folks who come to hear him play – especially in the segregated Deep South, which is where most of this amiable road movie takes place.
Don hasn’t heard Little Richard, or Chubby Checker or Aretha Franklin; Don doesn’t eat KFC. “Your people love the fried chicken!” protests Tony. “You have a very narrow assessment of me, Tony,” comes the mournful reply. This is where the film gets interesting – though also reveals itself as the work of three white Baby Boomers – because race has become such a slippery subject in our social-media age. Green Book won the Oscar, I suspect, because it’s reassuring: racism is easy to define, it says, it just means lumping people together based on their race – an easy mistake to avoid, when Don is so patently different to the poor black sharecroppers met on the road (though he pauses in front of them, hoping to inspire them by his regal presence) and Tony so patently uninterested in any ideology beyond stuffing his face with spaghetti and meatballs. This is a kind of carefree humanism harking back to another world, the optimistic post-war (and JFK-era) America when social problems could be solved by using your noggin, avoiding trouble whenever possible, and “doing everything 100 per cent”.
Green Book echoes other Oscar favourites. Driving Miss Daisy, of course, with the roles reversed; Hidden Figures, another 60s-set tale of prejudice forced to give way before African-Americans of genius; The Imitation Game, with Don as a less-tragic version of Alan Turing. Many have dismissed it as a ‘white saviour’ movie, but I’m not so sure; both men are improved by the relationship, Tony in particular lifted from his animal nature. (Indeed, the whole saviour narrative – implicitly treating all blacks as victims – is exactly what the film is warning against.) Green Book does become repetitive, kept afloat by the charm of its two lead performances; the have-it-both-ways climax, with Don both impressing and embracing ‘his’ people, comes off curiously irrelevant. The aforementioned Spike Lee once concluded Do the Right Thing with opposing quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X – and the kindest way to describe Green Book may be as an MLK movie (“Dignity always prevails”) in a time that’s increasingly Malcolm. Or perhaps it’s just a dopey crowd-pleaser. Either way, I didn’t hate it.
DIRECTED BY Peter Farrelly
STARRING Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
US 2018 130 mins