There is one every single year. Preying on the divisiveness of racial politics with the notion that we are more similar than we are different. The Oscar-bait race film is a delicate breed of manipulation, white guilt, and genuine feels. In past, these films do great at the Oscars but age rather poorly (see The Helpor The Blind Side). Tired tropes such as the white savior and the magical negro grace our screens and because race is such a tricky subject to navigate we do not question these problematic conventions. Green Book, starring Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali and Oscar nominee and Lord of the Rings alum Viggo Mortensen, falls into a few of these pitfalls.
Based on a true story, Green Book recounts the true story of Italian bouncer Tony “Lipp” Vallelonga, known as Tony Lipp or Lipp, hired to drive and protect renowned jazz pianist Don Shirley on a tour of the American South. The title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide for black travelers in the Jim Crow South in the 30’s and 40’s. The guidebook noted which hotels, restaurants, and business were open to black patrons. Part road movie, part buddy comedy, the film tries hard to use comedy to bridge a racial divide without falling into stereotypical potholes.
Directed by Peter Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary, Shallow Hal) and written by Vallelonga’s son, Nick, Farrelly, and Brian Hayes Currie, the film provides plenty of nostalgia. The film features intricate classical music performances, along with 1950’s pop tunes not normally featured period films. It has to be noted that Farrelly, Vallelonga, and Currie are all white and though the film tries very hard not fall into the above mentioned stereotypes and conventions, the script could have benefited from a black writer.
Shirley seems to reject his blackness for most of the movie, trying to prove that he is not like “them,” as he puts it, “them” meaning other black people. Yet Shirley still tries to rise above the effects of segregation and slavery that do affect him and claim himself as superior. Lipp’s character falls into the lovable racist and white savior tropes more often than one would hope. He comments more than once that he is “more black than [Shirley].” The line feels awkward and played out. Shirley and Lipp’s relationship, though charismatic and brimming with chemistry, seems problematic for the modern viewer, even at the end of the film. Lipp doesn’t seem to change his mind about African Americans, but about rather, this one black person.
What makes the film work are Mortensen and Ali’s performances. Though the dialogue and some of the plot points are trite and fall into overplayed racial tropes, the actors’ individual performances do not make the same mistakes. Mortensen starts out as the lovable racist, providing most of the comic relief. Playing against type, Mortensen plays the comedic role well. His jokes come from the character’s confidence and ignorance. Mortensen plays Lipp as a product of his surroundings, driven by family and providing for those he cares about. Though his performance teeters into white savior territory, Mortensen’s chemistry and genuine affection for Ali shines through the performance, making Lipp’s motivations seem valid.
Ali provides dignity and a third dimension to Shirley, the musician. While his character motivations are overplayed conventions, (the black prodigy who doesn’t seem to belong in white or black communities, the black man who shows the white man true friendship), Ali provides layers and humanity to the role. You can tell that each choice Ali makes is well thought out through backstory and development. Where he got each trinket in his apartment, what foods he eats and doesn’t eat and why, Ali’s process saves Shirley from becoming a pawn in a story about race.
This movie will be nominated for Oscars. It certainly does a more nuanced job handling race than say The Blind Side or The Help. However, in a time where representation seems to matter more than ever, the basic beats of the story seem played out.
FINAL GRADE: B