Movie Review: Comedy/Drama – Green Book
Directed by Peter Farrelly
Written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, and Peter Farrelly
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, and Dimiter D. Marinov
Green Book is based the true story of Anthony “Lip” Vallelonga, a tough guy Italian-American bouncer for the Copacabana in New York City during the early 60s, who later in life became an actor of some note, playing gangsters in the movies The Godfather and Donnie Brasco and in the HBO television series, The Sopranos. In 1962, Vallelonga was hired as driver and bodyguard for Dr. Don Shirley, a virtuoso classical pianist and composer who toured the deep south to play his sophisticated blend of jazz, pop, and classical music for white audiences, often at venues where he was not allowed to enter as a guest. In many cases, Dr. Shirley was not allowed even to stay in the same hotels as Vallelonga, and instead had to stay in various “colored only” establishments. To find them, EMI record company executives gave Vallelonga a copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book, also known simply as The Green Book, a guide for African Americans meant to help them stay safe and comfortable in the often-perilous Jim Crow south. Green Book, the new film by Peter Farrelly, of Farrelly brothers fame, tells the story of that tour.
The film was written in part by the real Anthony Vallelonga’s son, Nick and was based on Anthony’s anecdotes. The screenplay’s veracity has been called into question by some of Shirley’s surviving relatives, who claimed the Dr. never mentioned Tony and that they were not, as Vallelonga claimed, lifelong friends. Whether or not the Vallelongas embellished the story to exaggerate Anthony’s importance to Dr. Shirley will likely remain a mystery. We only have their side of the story. But it isn’t relevant to Green Book’s value as a film and the message the movie sends. This is where I have issues. Green Book is by no means a bad film. There are effective moments, two fine performances by Viggo Mortenson as Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Shirley, and a general feeling of good intentions throughout. But it seems more like a relic from the past than a contemporary film about racism. And it sends subtle signals about the relationship between whites and blacks that seem out of place, if not offensive, in 2019.
The film is set in the early 60s, but it might as well have been shot then as well, so old-fashioned is its take on race. Save some vulgar language and a somewhat muted scene referring to homosexual behavior, it would have seemed right at home with one of those socially conscious movies of the period like To Kill a Mockingbird or Imitation of Life that were meant to convince white people of the evils of racism. Those movies were powerful in their day, when lynching was still common and the horrid image of Emmitt Till’s brutalized face, beaten so severely as to be unrecognizable as human, were still fresh in people’s minds. And to some extent they still are, if taken as period pieces, especially Mockingbird which is told from the perspective of an innocent child, but they also seem tame and dated today, and so does Green Book. Green Book is yet another in a long line of Hollywood films about racism told from the point of view of a white man. In a year that brought us Blackkklansman, Sorry to Bother You, and The Hate U Give, all uncompromising films about racism directed by African Americans, it’s embarrassing that the major 2019 release by a white filmmaker to touch on themes of race and equality is a warm and fuzzy puff piece like Green Book. Surely we, as the dominating race in a nation whose civil rights awakening occurred half a century ago, have moved beyond the mere realization that judging people by the color of their skin is wrong. Racism is bad, M’kay?
Tony, our transformative guide through the realization of the obvious, grows from the fearful cretin who throws away the glasses from which his wife (Linda Cardellini) has served lemonade to black workers to fully embracing Dr. Shirley as a human being, even inviting him to Christmas Eve dinner. Along the way we get the predictable “odd couple” clichés: At first the two don’t get along. The genteel, impeccably dressed Dr. Shirley takes issue with the rough, foul-talking Tony, bombarding him with endless dos and don’ts: No smoking. Eyes on the road, etc. Just as predictably, as time progresses, the two become closer. The stilted conversations become more meaningful. And Tony gains more insight into Dr. Shirley’s experiences.
It’s here that the movie wades into its most iffy territory. Dr. Shirley, it seems, requires Tony to introduce him to the alleged black experience. He doesn’t eat food with his fingers and that includes (groan) Kentucky Fried Chicken. This is supposed to be funny because, of course, all black people like fried chicken, right? In another scene, Tony listens to popular music on the radio. As a classically trained musician, Dr. Shirley is unfamiliar with the music of the R&B Soul greats of the day like, Aretha Franklin, Fats Domino, and Sam Cooke. “I’m more in touch with your people than you are,” Tony whitesplains. In Ali’s best moment, he sets Tony straight about the day to day fears and indignities of being a black man in America. It’s about as close as this movie gets to being gritty and it’s all too brief and underplayed. And it’s insulting because it implies that black people, in addition to being expected to love fried chicken, are also required to love Fats and ‘Retha and if they don’t, there’s something wrong with them. Thankfully, white Tony is there to set our misguided negro straight.
As the two encounter the expected issues of racial prejudice from upper and lower classes alike, Tony the bouncer, ever the white savior, rushes in to save the day. Dr. Shirley is not allowed to eat in a club where he’s about to play. The aggressive Tony insists he be allowed to do so, but the passively polite Dr. Shirley agrees to eat elsewhere until Tony finally goads him into refusing. The message we get here is that the weak-spirited black man needs white Tony to teach him to stand up for himself.
Nick Vallelonga claims that everything in the film is true to his father’s stories, and that the film is largely loyal to those stories, save the condensation of time (the actual road trip took over a year) and a few “minor” details (the hotels listed in The Green Book were not the squalid dumps portrayed in the film). I have no reason to doubt that. The film may be an accurate representation of the events of the tour, from Tony’s experience, at least, but It’s not factual accuracy I’m questioning, but the way the story is presented. The film might have been given the proper gravitas had it been told, at least partially, from Dr. Shirley’s point of view. Both Shirley and Vallelonga died in 2013, and Shirley left no record of the tour. But a black writer could have filled in the blanks had he or she been asked, and that’s the point. They weren’t asked. And Green Book is content to tell its story as a white man’s story, all of which proves its white writers and director still don’t get it. It’s not about us anymore. We’ve moved beyond the era of Caucasians preaching to Caucasians. Now that black filmmakers finally have a voice in the mainstream, it’s their story to tell, not ours.
Green Book means well in its own precious, myopic way, and it wants to send a positive message in a time when the racial divide in this country seems as pronounced as ever. But it’s hard to take it seriously when its idea of enlightenment is the image of an Italian housewife wholesomely embracing a black man as if that were groundbreaking. Would that white woman still hug a black man if he weren’t the effete and passive Dr. Shirley? Would she have embraced Ali’s drug dealing father figure character in Moonlight or one of the angry black men in The Hate U Give? What would she say today when confronted with the latter film’s portrayal of the killing of an innocent black man by a white cop or it’s urgent and desperate plea for white people to finally pay attention and listen? That’s the movie I want to see.
Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously named Nick Vallelonga as Anthony Vallelonga’s brother. He is, in fact, his son.