Peter Farrelly’s Green Book is a lesson to all Americans: Black Lives really do Matter, and, just maybe, all lives matter too. A house divided against itself cannot stand, but the division this country is now faced with is not one of race, sex, gender, sexuality, or any other label. It is a division of ideology. It is not politics, not Democrat versus Republican, but toxic ideologies that view the opposing side as not only completely devoid of reason, but sub-human. Green Book is a surprising reprieve from this battle of ideological demons, and it suggests, humbly, a remedy – if we are but willing to listen.
Now that I have stooped to the level of mentioning “the issues” and have your attention (and thank you to the five of you that would have read this anyways), I will do so no longer. Stuffing in political commentary is a great way to get attention for your movie review, but political film commentary is rarely – if ever – very good. I only feel justified in bringing it up at all because that is exactly what the film does: it uses political issues to get attention and then tells a solid story about two individuals without pushing on those issues any further. This is not to say it’s a film centered around a vaguely historical-political issue with a plot so thin and contrived that you would think it was Cruella DeVille herself (these are what I like to call “white guilt films;” movies like Hidden Figures come to mind), nor is it a film that tries to show us how to act towards members of the opposite race (I call these “white man’s burden films” and they are truly awful: McFarland, USA or Million Dollar Arm specifically come to mind). No, this is a film where historical racism is used as an obstacle for the characters (yes, both of them) to overcome on a relational level, and not one used to smack the audience upside the head by repeatedly reminding them that racism is bad. Thank you for not insulting my intelligence or character Messrs. Vallelonga, Currie, and Farrelly.
Green Book stars Viggo Mortensen (whom you might recognize as an aged Aragorn, making this film far more humorous in my opinion) as Tony “Lip” Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Doctor Don Shirley. Tony is a lower-class Italian-American trying to make ends meet to support his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and two kids (one of which is Nick Vallelonga, who in real life helped to write the film). Dr. Shirley is an upper-class concert pianist holding three Doctoral degrees. He also happens to be black (and gay, but this is all but a footnote in this picture), in a film that takes place in 1962. Tony is hired by Dr. Shirley to drive him on his concert tour, as well as to protect him and solve problems once the tour hits the deep South. In Tony’s words, “there’s gonna be problems,” and, to spare you the suspense, he’s right. But that’s not the primary focus of the film. Instead, the focus is on Tony and Dr. Shirley’s relationship.
As you might have guessed, Tony starts off a little bit prejudiced against African Americans at the beginning of the film. No more than the average 1960s Italian-American New Yorker, which is exactly what Tony is, but it is there nonetheless. Dr. Shirley is the opposite of what Tony expects of a black musician: extremely professional and intelligent, and only wanting to play classical music. He knows none of “his people’s music” (as Tony calls it), and speaks far cleaner English than Tony. Unlike many lesser movies, however, this is not just another story of White Man doesn’t like Black Man; Black Man shows White Man up; White Man likes Black Man; Black Man forgives White Man; everyone is happy. It is clear that Tony and Dr. Shirley are both at odds with one another, but only because they do not understand one another. The typical roles are reversed: the Black Man is the cultured one and the White Man is the uncultured one. Nor is it about the two men being the same underneath, or even able to do the same things: Tony could never play piano like Dr. Shirley. And it is this last point that first starts to change Tony’s heart. He is impressed with Dr. Shirley’s ability, calling him “a kind of a genius … like Liberace, only bettuh” in his first letter to his wife after leaving on the trip. These letters are used as a device to move the plot, and they are another means of bringing our two heroes closer to their inevitable friendship. Dr. Shirley finds out about Tony’s letters, which Tony is embarrassed about because he “don’t write good.” Dr. Shirley starts helping him write the letters, and they become most eloquent. The discussions of what to put in the content of the letters gives each character a better understanding of one another in a way that happens naturally over the course of the film, so that by the end of it, you feel the same fondness and depth for them as they do for each other.
At the beginning of Tony and Dr. Shirley’s trip, Dr. Shirley tells Tony in various ways to improve his manners and speech because “he can do better.” It is refreshing to see a moral expectation placed on a character in a film. People do not need to simply be accepted and nothing more. They should be accepted and expected to be good. It is not enough to identify as white or black or gay or transgender. Rather, you should be a good person first, no matter your identity, status, or privilege. This is the mantra of Green Book, stated quietly – almost inaudibly – but still there as something that should not need to be said, but that must be stated before we are divided further.