Friday, April 12, 2019

Green Book: Review

Four years after #OscarsSoWhite began trending, there are two films by African-American directors in the Best Picture race. Both Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther examine race, the former with anger and corrosive satire, the latter through the lens of comic book mythos and Afro-futurism. Yet, neither seems to have emerged as a serious challenge to Roma for best film. Instead, another look at racial politics, written and directed by white men, is an unlikely frontrunner.

In the 1940s and ‘50s, several black musicians touring the American Deep South relied on a guidebook by Victor Hugo Green, which listed the gas stations, motels and restaurants which would serve them. In Green Book, this is handed to Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), chauffeur to Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a classical pianist who performs for white audiences but isn’t welcome in their world. Embarking on an eight-week tour of the Midwest and South, Don hires Tony, a New York Italian-American tough with friends in the mob, to drive his car and see that he has what he needs.

In the beginning, this reverse Driving Miss Daisy results in bickering and mistrust. The class difference is mined for laughs – Don is an aesthete and a snob who’s never eaten fried chicken out of a box; Tony’s a working-class boor who can’t spell. But as they travel from one racist town to another, and Tony sees first-hand how the supremely talented Don is treated, they warm up to each other. Don loosens up, Tony realises that racism is bad – not a fair trade anywhere else but in Hollywood.

This is the depth that one might expect from a Peter Farrelly film, racism rendered cute and temporary with the help of a comical lug. He ain’t really racist, Green Book seems to argue, he just don’t know no better. Early on, Tony throws the glasses, which two black plumbers who visit his house drink from, into the dustbin. He ends the film by welcoming Don into his home — a Capra-esque scene that appears to vanish the racist attitudes of his extended family in a few seconds. Don’s transformation comes in a supremely condescending scene where he plays a classical piece in an African-American dive (black audiences can dig the arty stuff too!), then hammers out a blues riff with the house band (because you aren’t truly black if you only play classical – white – music).

Mortensen and Ali lean in to the stereotypes of plain-spoken working Joe and dignified black man. Neither performance is free of self-parody, but they make the film more engaging than it has a right to be. Linda Cardellini is wonderful as Tony’s wife, who starts receiving surprisingly heartfelt letters from her husband (Don’s dictating them). But all the good vibes in the world can’t hide the soft-pedalling simplicity of Green Book.

This review appeared in Mint.

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