A timely thought-provoking dramedy in the style of “Driving Miss Daisy” with a charming lead cast that provides a platform to analyze racism, class, and other prejudicial issues set in the Jim Crow era South. Based on the true story, writer-director Peter Farrelly uses a buddy road trip comedy approach to tell an important, hard-hitting story that is just as relevant today as it was during the Jim Crow days of the deep south. More than relevance though, it’s an important film that can potentially start conversations about racism, classism, and many other isms or social phobias we face today. Socioeconomic and racial bigotry still exists. Perhaps those issues aren’t as formal as the Jim Crow days, but these are issues that are still alive today and need to be addressed. Film is a powerful medium for challenging the status quo or starting conversations about topics that are otherwise hard to discuss. Sometimes, a film plays it safe while dealing with tough topics such as racism. Hidden Figures and The Help come to mind. The topic is definitely at the crux of the plot, but it doesn’t go right for the jugular of the offending party. However, the screenplay written by Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga (son of Tony, the central character), and Brian Currie is an unapologetic exploration of the realities of where parts of the country were and to some degree still are. The film’s heavier moments are counterbalanced by the comedic banter between Dr. Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony (Vigo Mortensen), and it is infectious! You may read that this film’s plot is predictable in many ways, and that is not untrue. However, the power of this movie is not in the mechanics of the plot, but its topical power and character dynamics and conversation between the characters that gives the film the award-winning quality it has.
Based on a true story, Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) is a world-class African-American pianist who’s about to embark on a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962. In need of a driver and protection, Shirley recruits Tony Lip (Mortensen), a tough-talking bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx. Despite their differences, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond while confronting racism and danger in an era of segregation.
Being from the deep south originally, there are many elements and encounters in this film that I have witnessed. Not that racism is limited to the deep south, as we can see evidence of it all over the country, but the racism depicted in the movie still exists, to this day, in the south. Perhaps it’s not as formal or widely accepted as it once was, but remnants of the Jim Crow days can still be found in the smaller towns. However, this film is about more than racism during the Jim Crow days, it’s also tackling classism between the highly educated, wealthy white collar professional and the streetly educated, lower middle class blue collar professional. Furthermore, the film also takes a moment to highlight the degree to which gay males were criminalized in the south. Corrupt law enforcement is not new to film or media, but this film makes it a point to not depict all white law enforcement officers the same. While many of the law enforcement officers are shown as unethical, Green Book includes a friendly, concerned officer who helps Tony and Dr. Shirley on their return trip home.
I love the visually-driven stark contrast between Dr. Shirley and Tony that is supported by strong dialogue and subtext. Within a short amount of time, we learn precisely what makes each of our leading characters tick and just how different they are. Shirley is a high-class, highly educated, white robe and gold jewelry wearing Jamaican-American concert pianist who lives above Carnegie Hall and Tony is a working-class Italian-American, Bronx-dwelling, bouncer at the famed Copacabana night club. They couldn’t be from two more different worlds. Yet, Shirley sees precisely what he needs in Tony as a valet/chauffeur as he makes his way through the bigoted south. Both actors deliver exemplary performances, packed with quite the savage zingers and sarcasm. Mortensen literally packed on the extra pounds that you saw in the movie, much in the same way we witnessed Charlize Theron put on the weight for her brilliant performance in Tully. Both actors are playing characters completely opposite of their typical ones. In his first role since Moonlight, Ali couldn’t be any further from his drug-dealing character in that movie. And we seldom get to see Mortensen in comedic roles, but his facial expressions and infectious energy are well-suited to his role in Green Book.
One of the most powerful takeaways from this film is not the fact the American south was (and still is to a lesser extent) a hotbed of bigotry and inequality that was direct, it’s the indirect racism that that hid behind smiles and “legacy” laws and still hides behind tradition today. In several scenes, the reasons for Shirley’s treatment was because of long-standing rules or laws that just are the way they are. Those in power do not question whether a rule is fair because that’s the way it’s always been. And I think that form of racism is even more dangerous than the more violent kind because it’s far more prevalent even today. The film also deals with classism because Shirley looks down upon Tony even before the road trip begins. From the moment that Shirley and Tony meet, Shirley looks down upon Tony and is consistently spouting savage comments. Whereas one’s level of education or job does not determine the level of class one displays in real life, I appreciate this trope in Green Book because it helps to paint the socioeconomic contrast that pairs nicely with the racial contrast in order to setup conflict along the road trip. Whereas racism may not be something you’ve directly experienced, there is a strong possibility that you may have encountered or experienced economic or educational prejudice. Although the “caught in the act” scene between Shirley and the other male guest at the YMCA was a little “on the nose,” because it happened at a YMCA, this scene provides an opportunity to show that homophobia was (and still is, to an extent) very real in the deep south. It was even criminalized, as evident by the law enforcement detaining the men in the movie. So, if you’ve never experienced racism or classism, maybe this is something you’ve experienced in a more modern context. These areas are so very important because they allow so many people in the audience to identify with one or more areas of prejudice.
The screenplay for Green Book is so incredibly well-written! But the movie magic that allows the film to be as impactful as it is, is due to the on screen chemistry between Mortensen and Ali. However, back to the screenplay. It was brought to my attention that last year’s Phantom Thread is similar in pacing to Green Book, and that is in part due to the “slow moving” plot. But here is why I did NOT like Phantom but love Green Book: every moment in Green Book is important and full of meaning. There is not one wasted moment in the plot. Each line of dialogue was carefully constructed to drive the character development and plot forward. There is a beautiful authenticity to every moment of this film. Sometimes that authenticity is offensive (the language and attitudes of many of the southerners) and other times it is refreshingly candid. I was completely sold on Ali’s and Mortensen’s respective characters in every movement and every speech. I believe each and every character to be true to life, full of dimension and depth. Perhaps that depth is scary but other times it is heartwarming. Excellent banter is difficult to write, but the screenwriters demonstrate an uncanny ability to take a scene and make it both funny and dramatic all at the same time.
I am not sure where this this film falls in my ranking of picks for the year, but I can honestly say that it is one of my favorites. My two favorite parts of this film are the performances and screenwriting. It’s a timeless story, based ON a true story, that is a narrative that we need today as we seem to face increased prejudice between various groups of people. Is Green Book going to cure the problem with racism and classism on display in the United States? No. But this film does show that by spending time with other people from different backgrounds or cultures, we can combat these actions by learning to love and accept those who are different from ourselves.
Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!
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