A long-shot contender for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, Green Book is a clever contraption. Ostensibly a true-life tale about racism in the Jim Crow South, the film leverages the torque of the buddy-comedy engine to do all the heavy lifting.
Mahershala Ali (House of Cards) plays the real-life musician Don Shirley, a Jamaican piano prodigy who mastered both classical and jazz, held several advanced degrees, and spoke eight languages. In 1962, Shirley decided to undertake a tour of the Deep South, in a quixotic effort to engage racism with the power of music.
Shirley is an optimistic fellow, but he’s nobody’s fool. Before leaving New York City, he hires a white driver/bodyguard, the tough-guy fixer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). Tony isn’t exactly woke, but he’s got that NYC live-and-let-live default setting, and he’s clear-eyed about the job. “From now on, you don’t go nowhere without me,” he says.
The title of the movie refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide for African-American travelers published in the days of segregation and sundown laws. Director Peter Farrelly establishes an effective tone, allowing the funny bits to land while the darker moments bite. The travelers run into all the anticipated troubles, and it’s entirely satisfying to watch them outsmart racist cops and backward thugs. But the film also lends proper weight to the appalling historical details. Don is paid to play the best venues in the South, but he has to sleep in flophouses on the edge of town and risk violent confrontations every minute of every day.
The odd-couple chemistry between Ali and Mortensen powers the film on a scene-by-scene, beat-by-beat wavelength. The veteran actors mine all the good stuff to be had from the script’s characterizations. Don, issuing commands from the back seat, tries to impart high culture to his uncouth driver. Tony, meanwhile, introduces Don to the joys of Southern fried chicken. There’s a great running bit in which the musician helps the barely literate roughneck write poetic letters to the missus.
It’s important to note that Green Book has caught some criticism as it’s migrated from the festival circuit to the multiplex. Many have argued that the film ultimately follows the redemptive arc of a white character while the real story is the dehumanizing racism Don faces on his musical tour. That’s a relevant perspective and an entirely legitimate criticism. (For a more vigorous interrogation of related issues, see Brian Howe’s recent essay on Hamilton.)
But in the real-time experience of watching the film, Green Book never feels like it’s eliding any issues. I suspect that has to do with the architecture of the screenplay. The film doesn’t overtly present as a buddy comedy, but it’s built that way at the foundational level; it’s in the sequencing of the narrative and the rhythm of the editing. As such, when the heavy moments do land, they land hard, and they hurt. The filmmakers play fair within the format they’ve established and the territory they’ve staked. The movie works.
Green Book brings a light touch to some dark days, and if it seems a bit too happy in the end, well, that’s on purpose. Comedy is supposed to end with an upward trajectory. Besides, the film has another sneaky little idea-bomb built into the structure of the script. Look closely and you’ll find the villain in this story is systemic racism itself. Post-credit codas affirm that Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga enjoyed a lifelong friendship. This one time, anyway, two men beat the system, and the good guys got a win.