Movie Review : Green Book (2018)
* This review contains spoilers *
The Academy Awards have always been fertile ground for disagreement. It’s never the best or most popular films who are nominated and among the polite and well-groomed chosen few, it rarely is the best one that wins. Let alone the most polite and well-groomed. This year’s consecration of Green Book was particularly criticized because it’s a heat-warming movie centered around themes of racial reconciliation, which is… you know, not quite here yet. Nothing will make marginalized communities angry like a white person winning an award for saying: “c’mon now, folks. Let’s get along.” But is Green Book as terrible as critics claimed? Well… almost.
Green Book was inspired by a true story, but “inspired” is the keyword here. The screenplay was written from testimonies and mementos of the friendship between standout classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his tour driver Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). The former is brilliant at what he does, but cannot step outside without getting in trouble and the latter is not extraordinary by any means, but does a little bit of everything. They couldn’t be any more different and yet develop a fondness for each other while driving through the (then openly racist) American south. They go through some shit and it helps them bond, if you will.
How can I put this? If the screenplay for Green Room had been written by a movie character, it would’ve been Rose’s dad from Get Out. It’s the ultimate: “let’s end racism by not calling black people bad words and allowing them to sit at our restaurant tables” movie. There’s so many cringey dialogs between Don and Tony I lost count of them, but the absolute worst was Tony teaching Don about Little Richards, Aretha Franklin and black culture in general. What the fuck, guys? OK, maybe Don Shirley grew up estranged from his culture, but was he locked inside a mansion without a radio or television? Shirley is introduced to be filthy fucking rich in the movie, but he didn’t even own one of these?
I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now, but Don Shirley’s succession was not even consulted for this movie. They were pretty pissed about it. I would’ve been too if my father or grandfather had been portrayed as a sheltered, arrogant, borderline functional and closeted overachiever by people I didn’t know, for narrative convenience’s sake. Because yeah, there’s a Don-is-gay scene that is brought up for Tony to save him from the big, bad Georgian police and that is never brought up again. Not bringing up homosexuality is perhaps historically accurate, but Green Book is a thoroughly revisionist movie and using Don’s alleged homosexuality in only one scene only accentuates the white savior narrative that plagues the screenplay.
And yet… terrible writing doesn’t completely tank Green Book. It is artificially kept alive for two hours through Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen’s performances. These two are so good at their job, they could make anyone or anything sound likable. Mortensen in particular was tasked with interpreting a plebeian stereotype, which is goes pretty much against everything he is and somehow he pulls it off. Ali was more in his comfort zone as an understated, but sophisticated type, but his performance was also quite enjoyable. I’m aware this isn’t quite rational, but such is the power of great acting. Ali and Mortensen have great on screen chemistry and I’d be delighted to watch them in anything not fucked up.
I’ll say it… it’s a shame that Green Book won the Oscar. I understand better now why Spike Lee stormed out when it was announced and I sure as hell understand why Jordan Peele didn’t applause. One year removed from Get Out’s win for best original screenplay, it must’ve been pretty fucking frustrating to see a movie win best original screenplay AND best picture using the very noxious logic you were condemning in yours. But such is the way of the world in 2019: make wokeness cool and tone-dear performative wokeness will most certainly become a thing. And Green Book is exactly that. A group of people wanting to appear woke without understanding the issue they’re talking about.