‘I’ ON CULTURE
Green Book is a good movie, one made almost certainly to work toward an Oscar or two for its superb cast and its uplifting message. At a time of racial tension, why not have a film about brotherhood of two unlikely people? Even better, it’s based on a true story.
The film is set in 1962. Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is an Italian-American bouncer at the Copacabana in New York forced to look for a couple of months’ work when the place is being renovated. He’s from The Bronx, a cigarette smoking guy who can put away a whole pizza at one sitting. One job opens up for him. Don “Doc” Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black concert pianist who is very upper-class by American standards (he is Jamaican) but does have a drinking problem, needs a driver for a concert tour through the South, a place then dominated by Jim Crow laws pushing black segregation and subjugation. The title of the film refers to a guide book of the time for blacks traveling in the area to help them find places they can go that will serve black people.
Shirley feels it would be useful to have a white driver who could deal with many of the problems. Tony, who is not comfortable around black people, needs the work badly to help feed his family and takes the job. Although it seems a bit like a reverse Driving Miss Daisy, it becomes in part a comedy of manners. Tony’s idea of “good music” extends to Liberace on television. He loves fast food. Shirley has never even tasted southern fried chicken. The two men wind up teaching each other a lot and actually become friends.
Along the way, they face awful racism. Shirley is welcomed into fancy homes and music venues to perform, but not allowed to use the toilets there. There seems to always be a threat hanging over him. He is an interesting character.
Writer/director Peter Farrelly, best known for not very smart comedies, such as Dumb and Dumber, has created a fascinating character study. We know far more about Tony, perhaps because the screenplay is co-written by his son Nick Vallelonga, but much of that is because most of his life and feelings are right at the surface. When he is angry or happy, he lets it out. His relationship with his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) seems loving, even if he is not always able to express his feelings. However, we learn far too little about Shirley, who is the basic cause of the whole film. Some critics have suggested that we do not learn that much because he is black and the writers are white, However, a major element may well have been that the musician was a very private person.
Mortensen’s performance is exceptional. He is able to bring a simple, brutal man to life at a time when he is going through a transformation into a different person. In some ways, this can be seen as a metaphor for Americans of the time. Within a half dozen years of the time of the movie, many of the certainties about race in the south and around the country were changing. But Mortensen brings an enormous amount of life into the part. He is already being mentioned for an Academy Award nomination for the part. Ali had a far harder task. Shirley kept his feelings under far stronger control. Yet there are storms under the seeming calm in the performance. That he had to go to a place that would force him to be somewhat submissive because he was black and needed money had to be grating, yet it was part of life for many people at that time. It is harder to play characters who hide their feelings, but Ali is a strong enough performer that he can make us aware of the insecurities and the anger within this character. He also has been the object of Oscar talk.
There is too little action in the film, but it is a fascinating character study. The two main characters were both out of their element in the American south of the time, and they learned so much that it can help inspire all of us. This is a good movie, one that will certainly be ranked among the best of the year.