Green Book feels about 30 years late to the conversation of race in America. The film offers up the lesson that kindness will be the cure for racism, a notion that is so simple that it offends in 2018. Back in the 90's, I could see Green Book being a somewhat progressive tale. Today, it comes off as a film that doesn't have any bite and longs for a simpler way to think about racism. One where an Italian caricature from The Simpson realizes that an articulate, well-dressed, cultured and extremely talented black man is a real human being worthy of friendship.
Based on the true story of Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), Green Book follows how these two unlikely characters become life-long friends. Dr. Shirley is a genius pianist, one whose talent was so immense that bigots looked the other way. Dr. Shirley hires Tony to drive him on a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962. Tony is a tough guy who has a knack for diffusing danger. Tony is also from a traditional Italian family that have strong racist attitudes towards black people. At the beginning of the film, we see Tony throw out two glasses after black plumbers, who have have been working in his home, use them. Tony is instantly at odds with Dr. Shirley both because of his race and also because of his class status. Dr. Shirley is aristocratic where Tony is working class. At one point Tony even suggests that he is closer to most black people, in terms of his class status, than Dr. Shirley ever will be.
Green Book is structured as a buddy road film. Tony is the audience point-of-view even though Dr. Shirley is by far the more interesting figure. This makes sense when the screenplay is written by three white dudes. There's Something About Mary director Peter Farrelly is behind the camera, someone not known for his subtly. The film paints Tony as a crude man but relatable. He can't seem to help himself and how he behaves. Dr. Shirley is seen as aloof, a man above his station in Tony's eyes. The film's comedy is rooted in Tony's prejudices as in a scene that finds him introducing Dr. Shirley to fried chicken. Dr. Shirley is painted as a man who must earn Tony's appreciation through his respectability. However, this is also seen as a hindrance to Dr. Shirley relating to black American culture. Dr. Shirley's homosexuality is briefly touched upon but only serves to reinforce his otherness against Tony's normalness.
Green Book works in a few ways. Ali and Mortensen have chemistry. Ali brings a lot to his portrayal of Dr. Shirley but the film never wants to be about him. It holds firmly to its white perspective as the norm and never once gives us a satisfying or informed look at the struggle this man must have gone through trying to change bigots minds through his music. The film champions Tony as a white savior who gives Dr. Shirley the gift of friendship and the power to continue on to the end of the tour.
Audiences are going to find a lot to like about the film. Green Book paints in broad strokes. It is a feel-good story about how easy it is to overcome racism. Open any newspaper or talk to any African American today and it is easy to understand how offensive Green Book really is. This is a movie that reduces the complexities of bigotry to the story of one white guy learning to be decent to a black guy. It will make you feel good about your own lack of racism but it never challenges you to see things from the other side.