Director: Peter Farrelly
Writer: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly
Cinematographer: Sean Porter
Producer: Jim Burke, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, and Charles B. Wessler
by Jon Cvack
NOTE: This was written before the Best Picture backlash, immediately after seeing the film
The formula was simple - a well mannered upper class and well educated black pianist is driven around by a foul lower class white man. From the preview alone I think most people would anticipate the entire arc of the story; the pair will be offended by the other and then reconcile into a deep and lasting friendship. The black man will see past the white man’s crass and racist behavior and the white man will see past skin color. A friend of mine on Facebook said it best in that it’s a not so subtle shout out to the last two presidents. And yet, that kind of seems the point.
The movie I first recalled after watching this was Corrina, Corrina (1994) starring Ray Liotta as a recently widowed man whose wife died from cancer; hiring Whoopi Goldberg to help take care of his mute tween daughter Corrina while also helping out with the house. Liotta is an atheist, soft spoken, and fairly bitter man who writes radio jingles, while Goldberg is a rambunctious Catholic who had always dreamed of writing the record notes on the backs of albums. Soon Corrinna is introduced to her black culture while her and Liotta start to fall in love; seeing past each other’s differences. I don’t recall how many times I’ve watched this movie growing up. If pressed, I’d say maybe a dozen. I’m not sure why I always liked putting or keeping it on; providing that weird reflection, where though I was too young to understand craft or understand the racial dynamic, I was attracted to the film as though there were things to discover and experience.
Green Book presents a similar story; though instead of love it’s focuses on friendship. It follows a bouncer Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) who works at the Copacabana nightclub; showing off his strength after a couple of patrons try to fight and refuse to be kicked out. However, when the club’s forced to shut down for renovations, Frank is now out of work for the next three months, possibly up through Christmas. His fellow night club crew flirts the line with organized crime, though while the offer rolls in to run a few of their errands for a nice paycheck, he opts out for some honest work; taking an interview with a successful pianist “Doc” Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). The pair interview one another, and we learn that Doc is planning a Southern tour where he’ll need an ostensible bodyguard to protect Doc against any potential problems; that is, violent racists.
While Frank’s willing to drive Doc around, he refuses to be a “butler” and iron shirts or polish shoes. Doc refuses to offer the gig, only later calling him when it’s clear that few others have what it takes for the position. The pair hit the road with two other band members and Frank is handed what was once called a “Green Book”; a traveling guide “for the Negro tourist” who’re doomed to arrive in towns still practicing segregation.
They ease down into the South, beginning in New York City, down to Baltimore, across through the Midwest and then make their way down to Alabama; each destination getting progressively more racist as the trip goes on. What begins as the white hosts cooking Doc fried chicken and collard greens turns to refusing to let him use the in-house bathroom. The extravagant and expensive hotels which accept him up in the Northeast fade into begrimed flea dens. The friendly acceptance of white people devolves into the bitter and violent hate the deep South feels for black people, leaving you to increasingly wonder what exactly Doc made his way down there for.
The most important aspect for any character foil is proper personality. Doc and Frank oppose each other, but Mortenson’s Frank far outshines Ali’s Doc; as while the film returns to a classic formula, it also falls victim to structural benevolent bigotry. Doc is at times an insufferable prig, and while we later learn that most of that might have been based on fear, it was the more intimate moments that displayed the issue. Contrast this with Frank who steals literally every scene, as we’re left wondering how his complete lack of concern for what others think, while also being very good at his bodyguard role, make each scene a thrill to watch. When Doc can’t get into the bathroom and is told to use the outhouse, we can’t wait to hear what Frank is going to say. When Doc gets ruffled up, we’re excited to see how Frank is willing to go to help him. The only moment Doc gets the spotlight seems to be during the final moment at the all-black bar and Doc takes a try at some jazz improv.
It’s an example of where diversity in authorship is a necessity. Imagine if the rolls were flipped, and instead the tale was a 70s/80s-inspired throwback of a foul-mouthed lower class black man who assists the successful white man? It’d receive the same criticism as Driving Miss Daisy (1989), The Green Mile (1999), or The Blind Side (2009); showing the black man to be ignorant and uncultured, saved by the white man.
I understand this is a true story, but given how obvious the politics are, it seems like rather than let people of color tell their stories, we instead show them as benevolent individuals, while providing their white counterparts with all of the depth and flavor. If I was a betting man, I think we’ll look back to films like this and see them as a reflection of our currently unjust, though improving race relations.
I started to forget most of this by the time the film got moving and the chemistry further evolved. I accepted Ali’s rendition and remained excited for Frank. Driving deeper into the south created an unfamiliar tension for such a feel-good moral film. To think less than seventy years ago, just a few years older than my parents, blacks would have to abide by sundown laws, have nowhere to stay, or in the film’s most intense scene, be refused service at the very club Doc is playing at. In a brief moment, we hear the circular illogic that plagues racist thought; believing that the black man who refuses to perform after being denied service demonstrates how unreliable black men are in general.
Soon we learn that, like Nat King Cole before him - who was one of the first black men to perform in the reputable clubs down south, accosted and nearly driven out of the city - Doc is attempting to bridge the two worlds, in the hopes that music could help dissolve the perceived differences. In the end, he was willing to sacrifice his own life comforts and safety to accomplish this mission.
The two then head back, making it home just in time for Christmas. Frank knows Doc has no one to share the night with, invites him up, but Doc refuses. And in classic rom-com movies, just as Frank grows depressed that his new friend chose to be alone, Doc appears, bottle of wine in hand and welcomed into the apartment.
As of writing this, the National Board of Review has named the film Best of the Year and it later received five Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture. There’s talk that it’s at least front runner for an Oscar, and it seems like the perfect nominee; progressive but not radical the way BlacKKKlansman (2018) is. And perhaps that’s the type of movie some need in Trump’s America. While BlacKKKlansman is the progressive story, Green Book is the conservative one.
There’s something about the final scene where Frank opens the door to Doc and how lonely he looks before accepting his new friend in for a family Christmas. It makes you think of how the story continues and what else they shared as the years went on. Any story that leaves you imagining beyond has to be pretty good.
BELOW: The scene that blew up liberal Twitter who seemed to miss that their ire is the point
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