There’s probably a great movie to be made about Dr. Don Shirley, the closeted classical piano virtuoso as he embarks on a tour of the south in the segregated 60s, but Green Book isn’t it. While the film itself is well produced, and leads Viggo Mortensen and especially Mahershala Ali are amazing, this film is more interested in showcasing and normalizing the casual racism of Mortensen’s Tony Vallelonga as he operates as Shirley’s driver. If you want to see a white-savior movie where a black guy learns about Little Richard and fried chicken from a white dude that uses “eggplants” as a pejorative then have at it, but this film made me feel more uncomfortable than anything.
While the title refers to the Negro Motorist Green Book, a tome that was used to demarcate safe places to eat and sleep for blacks traveling through the segregated south, it’s given little service in the film. The film is told through the eyes of Vallelonga and more interested in his life and experience and how this horrific time in black America affects him than it is in spending too much time on Dr. Shirley, despite how fully realized Ali tries to make him. A steely, proper and elegant man, who carries himself with a tremendous dignity, Shirley is constantly put in humbling and demeaning situations, although there’s no real exploration of these incidents. They are merely a tool to highlight the character arc of Vallelonga from casual racist to black hero.
Maybe Peter Farrelly, the man behind “There’s Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber” wasn’t the best choice for a nuanced take on the segregation experience, but while acquitting himself in the dramatic field rather decently, the problems with the film lie less in the technical aspects of the storytelling than the tone and manner of the storytelling. Whether or not it actually happened that Dr. Shirley learned the finer points of blackness from the stereotypes Vallelonga threw down isn’t the point, especially at a time (now and then) when racial strife is in a precarious spot.
Given how much the (predominantly white) audience I saw this with applauded, it’s obvious that most people are just fine with the film, which doesn’t justify the white-savior trope, it merely highlights that there’s a market for it.
My Grade – A for Ali and Mortensen, but D for the film itself.