It was a Tuesday on September 11th at TIFF. Most of the heavy weights had screened or would screen, but one film would surprise us sleep deprived press. It was a film directed by a Farrelly brother, Peter Farrelly. The same Farrelly that made Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. The only component of the film that arose any suspicion was its two leads, Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali. We surmised that the film would either be a blinding success or a stinging and epic failure, but Green Book somehow managed not to be a failure (nor a soaring triumph). Instead, it flew a middle flight and stunned the packed premiere.
Green Book‘s title is a reference to a travel guide. During segregation, African Americans weren’t allowed to eat at certain restaurants, sleep in many hotels. The Negro Motorist Green Book provided traveling blacks with the “safest” possible passage through the Deep South. The film’s “lead” character is Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a hustling night club bouncer. Tony knows how to skim the system. He’s also an enforcer and well respected. However, when his night club closes for a few weeks, he’s given the decision to either do odd jobs for the mob or find another side gig. He finds another side gig.
Later, Tony answers an ad in the paper for a chauffeur. The man he’ll be driving around is Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black pianist living over Carnegie Hall. Shirley needs someone who can drive and get him out of sticky situations. The film intimates that Tony is racist, though it skews more to a “man of his time” portrayal (that’s what happens when the screenplay is partly written by his son, Nick Vallelonga).
Mortensen, for his part, absolutely disappears in the character. There’s a plethora of ham-fisted Italian caricatures in cinema, people who act more like Mario and Luigi than real Italians, but Mortensen walks that tightrope with ease. He plays Tony as, ultimately, a lovable, misinformed, but well-meaning goof. Ali, on the other hand, takes a while to settle into his character… or maybe it takes us time to adjust to him. He plays Shirley with a higher toned voice, a major change from Ali’s normal speaking register. Shirley, neither white nor black (a slightly cringey observation in a film written solely by whites), is lonely. Ali also plays him as brilliant and dignified, often amused and horrified by Tony’s lack of refinement.
The two depart from New York, and, well, racism ensues. As the two pass through the South, Tony comes to admire Shirley. He comes to marvel at his piano playing and empathizes when he observes the racist treatment of Shirley. They also bond over Tony’s simple letter writing. Promising to write to his wife Delores, played by an under-utilized Linda Cardellini, he finds help from Shirley, who fills in the words that he lacks. The best scenes are the letter writing scenes. They’re pure human interactions. They’re not borne from Tony simply doing his job; they come from each character letting their barriers down. These scenes are understatedly subversive, as the white guy is the goof who needs tutoring, and they’re effective.
However, there is one sequence that hasn’t left my mind. It’s the fried chicken scene. In it, Tony buys Shirley chicken. He assumes that all blacks love chicken. But Shirley has never tried fried chicken, and is accosted into doing it by Tony. He ends up liking it, but the laugh from the audience during the screening, from a mostly white audience, left some uneasy. It left me uneasy. Ali said, during a press conference at TIFF, when he received the script he didn’t know whether to laugh or be offended at the scene. He chuckled, but he didn’t know if he should have. I have a feeling that when other blacks see it, they’ll have the same puzzled reaction (especially if they view it in theaters).
Green Book feels like a relic, a film snatched from the 90’s, snatched from the, “Oh, I didn’t know it was that bad for you” white complex, leaving the black character schooling their white counterpart on existing racism that’s been apparent to anyone with a television.
And while it’s overly simplistic to call Green Book a reverse Driving Miss Daisy, it is. In 2018, the film shouldn’t work. Our jaded cynicism, and quite frankly, greater inspection of race in cinema should destroy any success the film should have. Yet, it does “succeed” with brilliant performances from Ali and Mortenson.
The film, and its ultimate success, will be viewed as a sign of how far we’ve come, when it should be taken as a signal of how far we still have to go. Because while Green Book—a middle of the road anti-racist film—will most likely reap box office gold, it’ll be BlacKKKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, and Blindspotting—far weightier and challenging examinations of prejudice—discovering that America still isn’t ready for a real talk about race. At least not one that doesn’t include fried chicken.