1. The People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival has, in the last couple years, become the “Privilege Myopia” Award. Four out of the last five years, it has gone to movies that in this day and age one would call “problematic.” Movies that try to tackle “important issues” in a digestible way, and thus end up adopting a simplistic, pre-packaged, sometimes offensive position on the issues. Last year, it was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, where British director Martin McDonagh tried to explain America’s violent heart and failed miserably. In 2014, The Imitation Game took the story of queer scientist Alan Turing and ignored the man’s sexual history, turning a fascinating man into a tragic version of Sheldon Cooper. La La Land had no interest in social issues, which is perhaps why it got criticized for positioning a white dude as the savior of jazz. This year, the winner was Green Book, which follows perfectly in that tradition.
2. Green Book is a movie co-written and directed by Peter Farrelly (half of the Farrelly Brothers who famously made There’s Something About Mary) in which an Italian American guy from The Bronx (Viggo Mortensen) works as driver and bodyguard for a famous concert pianist (Mahershala Ali) on tour through the Deep South. In 1962. Based on the premise alone, one would immediately call this a “reverse” version of Driving Miss Daisy. What you wouldn’t expect, however, is for the movie’s political discourse to not be much more nuanced than that of a movie that came out almost thirty years ago. It’s depressing that the fact that Green Book has gotten a lot of awards attention (most recently five Golden Globe nominations) isn’t really all that surprising.
3. Film critic Richard Lawson has described Viggo Mortensen’s performance as “very gabbagool” performance, which is a totally fair assessment. Playing Tony Lipp, Mortensen is sticking out his belly, moving his hands, and putting on an accent, but I saw something else in the performance: I think Mortensen is not just playing a generic Italian-American cartoon but doing a James Gandolfini impression. His facial gestures, shrugs, the cadence in his words… they are weirdly similar of Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. My guess is Mortensen watched a lot of The Sopranos in preparation for this role, but while he replicated Gandolfini’s moves, what made the late actor so great was that he made it seem effortless.
4. Mahershala Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley, a musician so fancy he lives on top of Carnegie Hall. You know Dr. Shirley is supposed to be fancy because he speaks like no other person has ever talked before. There is a reason for the character to speak this way, since he is choosing to present himself as as elevated as possible in order to escape racism, but his dialogue is so incredibly laborious and formal that you couldn’t expect a single person -no matter how dumb- to not think this guy is completely ridiculous, and I’m not sure that’s the movie’s intent. Shirley’s dialogue reminded me most of when high schoolers try to write a character who speaks very eloquently, and end up using archaic words and awkward phrasing that reveal much more about the writer’s lack of experience than the character.
5. There is a false equivalency at the root of this type of movie, which presents an exchange in which white and black characters learn from each other in equal manner. You could argue that it’s a better situation than that other trope in which the white protagonist is the only one who learns from the black characters around them, but is it really, when you think about it? In order to make Dr. Shirley learn from Tony, the Doctor is presented as so self-exiled from black culture that he doesn’t know who Little Richard is, and has never eaten fried chicken until Tony dangles a piece in front of his face. It is of note that Dr. Shirley’s family claims these details are inaccurate.
6. As I mentioned before, the movie has gotten five Golden Globe nominations including one for Best Comedy. The positioning of a movie about racism in the Jim Crow south as a comedy speaks to the filmmaker’s intent of making a light and digestible story, which leaves me wondering about the purpose of this whole enterprise. Who will benefit from laughing about an odd couple trying to maneuver around racism? Doesn’t Green Book‘s feel-good message ring hollow in the year of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, which uses comedy to intentionally deflate myths of harmonious collaboration and unanimous progress in race relations?
7. Speaking of comedy, there is a scene in which Viggo Mortensen eats a whole pizza that is clearly the funniest (and best) part of this movie.
8. About my theatre experience: Tony Lipp starts out as a racist character (otherwise there’d be no arc to this movie), so he says and does a bunch of racist things in the first twenty or so minutes. A lot of these racist hijinks were met with audience laughter, which made me wonder… what were they laughing about? Are they laughing because they know that Tony will have a change of heart by the end of the movie? Pointedly, I wouldn’t describe the moments that were met with laughter as jokes. It seemed to me that something about the movie’s set-up made the audience feel it was ok to laugh at racism (again, not unlike my experience in certain moments of BlacKkKlansman, except in that case, I believe discomfort was the point).
9. About the cathartic element of the movie: Tony comes to appreciate Dr. Shirley, thus becoming less racist. One of the things that make Tony change his mind is the fact that Dr. Shirley is so damn good at playing the piano. I don’t need to tell you there is a long history of white people appreciating black musical talent. There is also a history of making racist exceptions for certain people within a minority group. “He’s not like other black people”, is something that you would realistically expect to come out of a person who has gone through Tony’s journey. Now, an exploration of that kind of racism would have been much more interesting and relevant to our current moment, but Hollywood does not allow for complicated character arcs when it comes to racism, so Green Book ends where that conversation begins.
10. The most frustrating moment in the movie is a scene near the end in which the travelers are stopped by a police officer. The scene is meant to echo an earlier police stop, while featuring a different (unexpected but not really) result. The scene is completely myopic about the racial injustice that still exists in America, and this is in a movie that takes a moment for Dr. Shirley to pointedly ask Tony if he would be welcomed by his white friends and neighbors in the Bronx. The movie’s answer is to ask Dr. Shirley to relax, to remember that we’re all decent humans up here in the North. As usual with this type of movie, the institutional elements of racism and its more insidious and covert expressions are forgotten in favor of uplift.
11. On the Film Experience podcast, Murtada Elfadi pointed out that, despite being called Green Book, the movie had little to do with the historical green books, which were designed to help black travelers navigate segregation by suggesting safe restaurants and hotels. It’s a shame the title is now taken, since there is probably a good movie to be made about this subject and Green Book’s main interest is certainly not in the relationship between black people and the book of its title.