Because of its approach to racism in the early 1960s, Green Book may offer light-hearted moments but it’s one of the must-watch films of 2018.
Bronx native Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen) works as a bouncer for Copacabana but is forced to find work while the club undergoes repairs. He learns that Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is looking for a driver so he applies for the job. What Tony doesn’t know until meeting the doctor is that he’s a Black pianist. The pianist needs a driver for his two-month tour but doesn’t think Tony fits the bill. It also shows how much he cares about Tony’s family in that he won’t hire Tony without his wife’s, Dolores (Linda Cardellini) permission.
With the easy part out of the way, they soon depart for the a tour that takes them into the Midwest but also the Deep South. It’s the journey in the Deep South where these two bond with one another. This journey also changes the outlook that Tony has on life because he sees how people are treated in other areas of the country. Before leaving New York City, Tony is handed a book that is to serve as a guide for navigating their travel while in the south. This guide is where the film takes its name. One wrong move and things might end up badly for the both of them.
There are moments in the film that make you wonder about how much we’ve progressed as a nation. While Tony gets arrested for hitting a cop (that referred to Dr. Shirley with a slur), Dr. Shirley gets arrested for having a darker skin color who is out after dark. When he finally gets allowed to make his phone call, he makes the best of it. One of the more emotional moments comes in Birmingham, the final stop of the tour. How can you pay someone to perform there but not allow them to eat in your diner? It’s a moment where you can silently put up with “tradition” or stand up for your beliefs.
When I attended the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in 2018, Green Book was on my short list. I was never quite able to fit a screening into my schedule but it wasn’t for the lack of trying. After viewing the film in late October, I can’t argue with film winning the Grolsch People’s Choice Award. Even as the film navigates dangerous territory, the music and humor help with the pace. When I don’t look at my watch during a film, it speaks to just how great it is. This is something that rarely happens on my end.
Speaking as a Louisville native, it was nice to see Tony and Dr. Shirley stop through my hometown to spend the night. It’s just unfortunate what Dr. Shirley has to deal with at a local bar during his stay. It speaks to the ugliness of the era. A lighter moment comes shortly thereafter when Tony is so excited to see a Kentucky Fried Chicken. All in all, the film has something to say about this era in time.
When we think of a director such as Peter Farrelly’s background in comedy, directing this film is something that comes out of left field. Even for a master storyteller, you still have to wait for the right project to come along in order to switch genres. There may be some light-hearted and entertaining moments but it’s no comedy.
Leading performances from Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali help make Peter Farrelly’s Green Book one of the top surprises in 2018.
EDITED TO ADD:
In light of the comments made by Dr. Don Shirley’s family, I cannot look at Green Book in the same way. I owe it to myself to rewrite this entire review. Dr. Shirley deserves a film that is honest and forthright. One that doesn’t distort the facts. I highly encourage everyone to read what POC film critics are saying and especially read this article at Shadow and Act.
DIRECTOR: Peter Farrelly
SCREENWRITERS: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly
CAST: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimiter D. Marinov, P.j. Byrne