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Non-Review Review: Green Book

Green Book feels like a movie lost in time.

If Green Book feels displaced, it is not from the early sixties backdrop against which the story unfolds. Instead, Green Book feels like an awards season movie that was produced in the early nineties, and which slipped gently under the radar until it was unearthed at some recent point. Green Book very much belongs to those early nineties awards fare meditations upon race and class in America – especially Driving Miss Daisy, the film it most strongly evoked.

Going by the Book.

As a piece of nineties awards fare, Green Book would be judged rather kindly. It is crowd pleasing. It is broad. It is earnest, without being unnecessarily confrontational. It is also appreciably smarter than many of those nineties commentaries on race in America, consciously subverting and even inverting a lot of the expectations of the form. it is designed in such a way as to leave the audience with a big grin on their face, playing with familiar sets of narrative logic that nests a classic “odd couple” movie inside an exploration of the prejudices of the Deep South in the sixties.

However, Green Book is not a lost piece of nineties awards fare. It is a product of the current era. While it might track ahead of similarly ill-judged (and sadly contemporaneous) awards season movies about race like The Blind Side or The Help, it is still far more clumsy than a movie tackling these ideas should be in a twenty-first century context. Green Book feels positively outmoded when compared to fellow high-profile films about race like BlacKkKlansman or Sorry to Bother You or If Beale Street Could Talk. Green Book feels like a relic.

Food for thought.

This is a paradox. Green Book is significantly better in terms of production than many of the films to which it consciously invites comparison, films by white directors inspired by true events and coloured by nostalgia. However, it is significantly weaker than many of the more vital and dynamic films grappling with the same subject matter. Green Book often feels caught between these two extremes, and this presents a challenge in properly assessing it.

Green Book is a very good example of the kind of movie that it wants to be. However, it leaves unanswered the question of whether movies like this still have a place in the modern cinematic landscape.

“Doctor Shirley, you can’t be serious?”

Parts of Green Book are uncomfortable to watch, and not necessarily the parts that are intended to elicit discomfort. The central conceit of Green Book is a canny twist on the “white saviour” narrative that haunts so many of these earnest high-profile awards-winning films about race in America, stories often set in the recent past in which a wealthy and successful white person empowers disenfranchised and marginalised black characters; Sandra Bullock’s adoptive mother figure in The Blind Side, Emma Stone’s writer in The Help.

Green Book offers a genuinely clever twist on this premise by inverting the class dynamics of its central characters. Doctor Donald Shirley is an African American pianist embarking on a concert tour of the Deep South. His driver is an Italian American named Frank Vallelonga, who is decidedly working class in his attitudes and his diction. Naturally, the two men clash at first, and their relationship blossoms into a mutual understanding.

At the core of this relationship is the idea that Shirley can improve Vallelonga. Repeatedly over the course of the film, Shirley chides Vallelonga for his worst impulses – his base desires, his littering, his “bullsh!tting”, his diction. Vallelonga takes exception to the intervention of the well-educated and sophisticated black man in his affairs. When Vallelonga rightfully wonders why is subjected to such constant criticism, Shirley simply responds, “Because you can do better.”

In effect, Green Book positions itself as a “black saviour” narrative in contrast to the traditional “white saviour” flavour that usual distinguishes this sort of awards fare. Vallelonga is the rough and tumble street-smart grifter who takes pride in his nickname “Tony Lip” because it marks him out as “the best bullsh!tter East of the Bronx.” Shirley is the sophisticated city slicker who is very much out of his depth. With Shirley’s coaxing, Vallelonga becomes more sophisticated and more developed. He becomes a better man, more articulate and more decent.

Seeing red.

This marks a welcome change from the rhythm of stories like The Help and The Blindside, and is an important enough shift in emphasis that it feels like genuine innovation in the context of these awards-friendly films. Had Green Book been released two decades earlier, this approach alone would be enough to ensure that it was remembered well. It is a film that seems to recognise the uncomfortable subtext of so many awards season movies grappling with these themes, and turns them on their head. There’s a canniness in that, which should be acknowledged.

At the same time, the film brushes up against many of the same issues just from a slightly more oblique angle. The film repeatedly stresses how exceptional Shirley is. African American characters repeatedly stop to marvel at the strange sight of the educated and erudite black man, as if seeing a unicorn. When Vallelonga fraternises with the help (and by implication debases himself) it is with predominantly African American characters. Shirley does at least acknowledge, “You had a choice to be outside or inside. They did not.”

More than that, there is something slightly uncomfortable in the manner in which Shirley seems to embrace respectability politics, lecturing Vallelonga on the point repeatedly. Similarly, Vallelonga at one point insists that he is “blacker” than Shirley, an uncomfortable sequence that seems particularly charged in an era of white ethnic groups coopting the unique horrors of the African American experience. Shirley himself struggles with his identity, demanding, “If I’m not white enough, and I’m not black enough, and I’m not mad enough, then what am I, Tony?”

Green Book also embraces broad simplistic narratives of racism that avoid the complications and nuances of the American experience. Although Vallelogna’s Italian American family are presented as unapologetically racist in the opening segment, Green Book by and large presents racism as a specifically southern phenomenon. Shirley wonders is this is the case, but the film never explores it. At one point, the pair’s transition from North to South is contrasted in a pair of police stops. The police stop in the South is racist and brutal. The police stop in the North is idealised and pleasant.

Chewing him out.

This is a very idealised perspective on matters of race, one that anchors the issue in a very particular place and a very particular time. Vallelogna and Shirley are at one point warned about visiting “a sun-down town”, while Shirley’s tour of the Deep South is presented as something equivalent to a liberal anti-racist outreach. His Russian bandmate explains to Vallelonga, “It takes courage to change people’s hearts.” The implication is that Shirley is seeking to fight racism by visiting the Jim Crow South. The implication is that racism is less of an issue anywhere (or anytime) else.

There is something very patronising in this message, something that feels a little too casual and a little too reassuring. Modern cinema is populated with complicated and nuanced explorations of race in America that reflect the national and cultural character of the issue, even up to the present day. Sorry to Bother You, BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk all take a much harder look at the issue. Even Black Panther and Widows do more to suggest that racism is an on-going systemic concern than the geographical issue that it appears to be in Green Book.

This broad approach is reflected in certain other aspects of production, most notably Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Tony Vallelogna. Vallelogna often seems like a live action cartoon, a selection of broadly-drawn clichés about Italian Americans. Indeed, one quick cut has the character sitting in a hotel bed with a pizza, effectively inventing the calzone. Mortensen’s performance is full of those “ay!” and “aw!” sounds and the extended vowels that evoke classic New York. Mahershala Ali does much better in the role of Shirley, suggesting more nuance and complexity.

That cartoonishness carries across into the script and the plotting. This is most obvious in the early sequences featuring Tony Vallelogna and his family, when the film struggles to decide on a single unifying approach to the character. Struggling to stay solvent when the nightclub at which he works is closed to renovation, Vallelogna has to embark on a series of goofy hustles, which he does with aplomb. However, he also has to pawn his watch to feed his family, despite his schemes raking the dough. However, there is never any tension over whether he’ll get the watch back.

A concerted effort.

All of that said, there is a reason that films like Green Book perform as well as they do. As clumsy as its politics are, as flawed as its tackling of the subject might be, these films resonate with a particular audience. They offer a heartwarming and reassuring narrative of racism as a spectre of the United States’ past rather than a vital and active part of its present. They provide a less confrontational environment in which these issues might be drawn out and discussed. They reach a different audience than If Beale Street Could Talk or even Widows.

Green Book is very well put together. It is genuinely funny. Shirley and Vallelogna make a charming odd couple, and the film often works best in the smaller conversations between the two men, getting considerable mileage out of reaction shots from Ali. Better known for his comedy work with his brother Bobby, Peter Farrelly understands the rhythms and tempos of jokes,a nd is able to carry that across to the film’s more dramatic beats. Green Book knows exactly what it is doing in a broad sense, and knows exactly how to do it in a technical sense.

There is a bigger discussion to be had about whether the implicit and heartfelt reassurance offered by Green Book is deserved or even helpful at this cultural moment, whether there is a danger in this feel-good exploration of tolerance and understanding triumphing over bigotry and racism in a very specific context. Green Book suggests that the journey on which Shirley and Vallelonga embarked has a very clear end point, with Vallelonga even promising to his wife and kids that he will be home for Christmas.

A more honest version of Green Book might suggest that the biggest part of the journey still lies ahead, and without even a guide to help mark the safe spaces on the road ahead.

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