I had a big smile on my face during the first five minutes of Green Book. Director Peter Farrelly is famous for gross-out comedies like Dumb and Dumber. Green Book is about black-white interaction during Jim Crow. I didn’t think the fart-joke king could pull off a serious film. I feared that any artistic merit would sink under preachy political correctness. But Green Book is a fun movie and a worthy work of art.
It’s 1962. Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, an Italian-American living in the Bronx, is a bouncer at New York’s Copacabana nightclub. He’s hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley, a black, Jamaican-American pianist, on a concert tour of the South. Shirley needs, not just a driver, but muscle. Frank will serve as bodyguard as well as chauffeur. The eponymous green book is The Negro Motorist’s Green Book, an annual published by Victor Hugo Green from 1936-1966. It informed blacks about where they could shop, eat, and spend the night. Green Book is based on real people and real events. The script was co-written by Peter Farrelly, Brian Hayes Curie, and Nick Vallelonga, Frank’s son. Nick has said that his script is based on conversations with his father and Shirley. Shirley knew that a film was in the works, and wanted the full story told, but for Nick to wait until after he was dead.
Viggo Mortensen, a Danish American, is Frank. I grew up with Italians in New Jersey, and to me it’s a crime against nature for a man whose last name ends in the Nordic suffix “sen” to play an Italian. Again, those first minutes of the film laid my fears to rest. Mortensen’s performance is a dance. The way he fingers his lapels, bounces on his heels, leads with his chest, thrusts forward his lower jaw, puffs out his cheeks when pronouncing the Bs in “break my balls,” all are completely convincing. Yes, Mortensen’s Tony Lip is a bit of a caricature, but I suspect that the real life Tony Lip, back in 1962, like many Italian-American men, was himself giving a performance.
While Mortensen’s Frank is dancing a mambo, Mahershala Ali is a ballet dancer. Dr. Shirley is an aloof, affected, snob. The exact angle at which Ali carries his chin in relation to the earth was clearly carefully calibrated. In one searing scene, shot in the shower of a YMCA, when Ali finally lowers his head, you feel as if he had dropped a lead suitcase filled with graveyard dirt.
Tony has a wife (Linda Cardellini), and Dr. Shirley a manservant, Amit (Iqbal Theba), and an accompanist, Oleg (Dimiter D. Marinov), but perhaps the most important supporting characters in the film are a turquoise 1962 Cadillac Sedan DeVille, and the American road itself.
Frank is a tough guy with a heart of gold, surrounded by a big Italian family, and low level hoods who offer him work doing “things” that no one dare name. When two black men repair his kitchen floor and drink lemonade his wife offers them, Frank throws out the glasses. His wife retrieves them from the trash.
Don Shirley, notwithstanding his prodigious musical talent, is a bit of a lost soul. All former child prodigies must struggle to fit in; Shirley began playing piano before he was three years old. At eighteen, he played Tchaikovsky with the Boston Pops. The real Don Shirley lived, for fifty years, in an ornately decorated “artists’ quarters” above Carnegie Hall. There he played a Steinway beneath a crystal chandelier. Shirley was fastidious. In 1982, he criticized jazz pianists to the _New York Times_. They “smoke while they’re playing, and they’ll put the glass of whisky on the piano, and then they’ll get mad when they’re not respected like Arthur Rubinstein. You don’t see Arthur Rubinstein smoking and putting a glass on the piano … I don’t want anybody to know me well enough to slap me on the back and say, ‘Hey, baby.’ The black experience through music, with a sense of dignity, that’s all I have ever tried to do.” One can admire such high standards while readily recognizing how such high standards might contribute to a lonely life. In the film, the cinematic Shirley soothes his loneliness with a nightly, post-performance bottle of Cutty Sark, downed in solitude.
Look – I know you know exactly how this movie plays out. Green Book is a classic road film, where two people who are very different are trapped together in a small, confined space moving across a big, expansive country. They irk each other, teach each other, fight, rely on, and come, grudgingly, to love each other. Road movies have been playing out this plot at least since Frank Capra’s 1934 It Happened One Night. Clark Gable is the gruff newspaperman; Claudette Colbert is the snobby, sheltered heiress. He teaches her how to hitchhike and dunk donuts; she teaches him how to be vulnerable and talk about his dreams. Just so Frank teaches Don how to eat fried chicken, even though it’s greasy and must be eaten with the hands. Don teaches Frank how to expose his feelings to his wife in his letters home, and how to solve problems without punching someone in the nose. Frank and Don are a variation on Neil Simon’s Odd Couple, Oscar Madison and Felix Unger. Opposite pairs like this have been intriguing audiences since Apollo and Dionysus.
Though they are very dissimilar in plot, Green Book also reminds me of a low-budget, 1963, black-and-white film, Lilies of the Field. In that film, Sidney Poitier stars as Homer, a vagabond who builds a chapel for Maria, (Lilia Skala,) mother superior of poor, immigrant nuns living in remote Arizona. Homer is the Frank character here, the effusive, carefree foil to the more uptight Mother Maria. Both films have predictable plots composed of small incidents that, by the end, surprise you by how much they move you.
Though Green Book is relentlessly popular, Farrelly’s artistry gives us two fully human characters. Frank is no saint, and neither is Don. Don is a superb pianist, but he lacks interpersonal charm. At one blacks-only motel, another lodger invites him to a game of horseshoes. He stiffens up; he can’t bring himself to kick back and relax. Frank is a petty thief, pocketing a lucky jade stone from a poorly guarded roadside stand in the rural South. When Don was arrested, naked, and handcuffed in a YMCA shower for illegal contact with another man, I feared that Frank might severe the fragile bond he and Don were forging. I was impressed when Frank calmly said, “I’ve been working in nightclubs for a long time. The world is a complicated place.” When the film finished, the audience burst into applause, a rare event. We were not alone. At the International Movie Database, amateur reviewers repeatedly use the word “love” when urging others to see Green Book.
Green Book, in addition to being a virtuosic piece of popular entertainment, conveys a timeless lesson. Again, its lesson isn’t anything innovative or surprising. The manmade barriers between members of different tribes, though appearing permanent and formidable, collapse like the walls of Jericho given the right trumpet blast. What unites us is more important than what separates us. With a little humility and charity, we can overcome our differences and contribute to each other’s lives. Get two members of warring factions alone together, give them a task to complete, and external opponents, and they will form an alliance. Don and Frank are alone together in that Cadillac. Frank receives a bonus if he gets Don to his concerts on time. He wants that money, and thus Jim Crow is his enemy, as much as it is Don’s.
This next part won’t surprise you, either. Even as I was relishing Green Book, I was ticking off all the items on a list that would cause race hustlers to hate the film. And race hustlers insist that you hate it, too.
Green Book has an 82% positive score at Rotten Tomatoes. That’s good, but reviewers often seem to be fighting their own impulses in their reviews. A. O. Scott, writing in the _New York Times_, calls Green Book “corny,” “misguided,” “sentimental,” “middle-of-the-road,” “not subtle,” “crude, obvious and borderline offensive, even as it tries to be uplifting and affirmative.” At the end of his review, Scott’s reserve collapses. “There is also something about this movie … These men are good company,” Scott must acknowledge.
K. Austin Collins, an African American reviewer writing in Vanity Fair, called the film “boneheaded,” “sickening,” and myopic.” “Eating the chicken to overcome racial friction in that teal Cadillac makes for a good story, but it severely undercuts the politics of respectability that Shirley otherwise, and much more interestingly, goes out of his way to embody,” he writes. I’ll be honest – I don’t know what this sentence means. Perhaps Collins writes this way because he is affiliated with the English Department at Princeton. Collins blames white privilege. “To think, as a white filmmaker, that questions of this sort are things you can blithely make up or change outright.” The film is “historical malpractice.” The film pays attention to a working class Italian with no claim to fame. This outrages Collins. “Dr. Shirley has a substantially larger claim to true historical significance … Dr. Shirley was a virtuoso recording artist … He’s the guy with Robert F. Kennedy’s phone number. His is the story here that has history, writ large, to contend with – he’s here because he was exceptional … Tony Lip is the historical footnote.” Collins expresses, shamelessly, in neon lettering, the prototypical liberal’s snobbism against working class white ethnics. And Collins reveals zero awareness of his own racism against poor whites, his own privilege as a Princeton man, his own elitist contempt. The film’s purpose, Collins insists, is for whites to be “wiped clean of guilt.”
Jourdain Searles, an African American who contributes to “Bitch Media,” accuses Green Book of being from the “School of Simplistic History and Sentimentality” and asks, “Why do movies like this keep happening?” Searles calls the film “shameless,” “degrading,” “shallow,” “self-important,” “desperate,” and “manipulative.” Searles rages, “It’s a comforting vision for the white viewer, reminding them of the ‘progress’ the country has made regarding racism. It also positions them as the direct source of that progress. Yes, white people are the real heroes for occasionally setting their privilege aside to recognize black people as human beings. The assumption that racism can end through friendship allows white people to be credited both with the beginning and end of the oppression of black people in the U.S. … At least Farrelly was able to make racists comfortable for Christmas.” Note Searles’ scare quotes around “progress.” No doubt Searles, in addition to being a blogger, is also a sharecropper who cannot vote. Perhaps Searles’ oddest complaint against Green Book, “Sex is never depicted.”
Jenni Miller, the white “sex editor” at Bust, confessed to succumbing to Green Book’s appeal, but assessed herself as suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome.” Miller liked the movie, she said, because of “my own thoughtlessness, laziness and socialization.” There you have it. Miller has an internalized Committee to Ensure Ideological Purity inside her head who accuse her of thought crimes. And she’s a sex editor at a publication called “Bust.” Someone who, it would seem, would be pro-guiltless pleasure. Green Book is evil because it makes “white people feel smug and self-congratulatory about race relations.” Even just choosing to see Green Book identifies one as a thought criminal. “The white people who go see Green Book think of themselves as socially open-minded people who like seeing other white folks overcome their prejudices and become friends.” When Soviet Russians invaded Poland to usher Poles onto cattle cars to Siberia, they made it a point to focus on stamp collectors. The Khmer Rouge focused on anyone wearing glasses. When Miller takes over, she’ll select for deportation the fans of Green Book. Green Book is bad because “this movie was written, directed and produced by white people.” Yes, she really said that.
At Shadow and Act, Brooke Obie denounced Green Book as a “white savior film.” That Don saves Frank every bit as much as Frank saves Don escaped her notice. Obie says that just because white people associate with blacks doesn’t mean that they aren’t racist. After all, she says, “Ask Sally Hemmings.” Evidently Obie has not asked Sally, because if she did she would know that Sally’s last name was spelled “Hemings.” In any case, point taken. When blacks and whites interact, every black must be understood as an enslaved person, and every white must be understood as having the same power as the third president of the United States. Green Book exists to “enhance white privilege.” Obie rages that Mahershala Ali sits in the back seat of the Cadillac. In fact chauffeured passengers conventionally do sit in backseats. Any given taxi ride demonstrates this. Obie rages that Frank “does nothing to help end structural racism.” Yes, but dear, if Frank did that, he’d be even more of a “white savior” and you’d have to hate this movie even more, wouldn’t you?
Leon Raymond Mitchell, in the comments section, offered an interesting theory. “Extreme HATRED of Obama and gains by people of color gave us TRUMP. Moonlight & Black Panther gives us GREEN BOOK.” Let’s break down Mitchell’s claim. People hated Obama because he was black, and so they elected Trump. Mitchell forgets that Obama got more votes than Trump, and some voters voted for both Obama and Trump. Further, Black Panther is one of the most financially successful superhero films ever made. In short, neither Trump’s election nor Green Book proves that America is racist. But if an internet poster types in all caps, suddenly his claim becomes true. And saying, “What you just said is not true and it does not prove that America is racist” will be heard by many as a racist statement in and of itself.
Monique Judge at The Root declares that “This film spoon-feeds racism to white people.” Even so, she is forced to confess, “I actually enjoyed it, despite all of its flaws. It was funny in the right places, touching in the right places.”
One of the most depressing denunciations of Green Book is an echo of Princetonian K. Austin Collins’ huffing that Green Book dares to include the story of an obscure, working class, white ethnic chauffeur in a film about a wealthy, black concert pianist. Maurice E. Shirley Sr., Don Shirley’s brother, has actually protested that “My brother never considered Tony to be his ‘friend;’ he was an employee.” How could anyone say anything so shamelessly snobbish and contemptuous? Maurice continues, “As the only living brother of Dr. Donald W. Shirley, I, Maurice E. Shirley, Sr. am compelled to respond … In agreement with Malcolm X who proffered that ‘every White man in America profits directly or indirectly from his position vis-a-vis Negroes, profits from racism even though he does not practice it or believe it.’ This movie, ‘The Green Book’ is NOT about MY brother, but about money, white privilege, assumption, and Tony Lip!”
Maxine C. Leftwich, another Shirley family member, wrote, “Our family is boycotting the film due to the implicit and the explicit affronts we have endured while critics have hailed the film for its artistic brilliance and its timely juxtaposition to the rise in hate crimes, White Nationalism, and neo-Nazism in the contemporary United States.”
From these objections, one can deduce a list of requirements.
1.) Whites are essentially evil, including all white scriptwriters, directors, and actors. No matter how benign their work may appear on the surface, it must be interpreted in the worst way possible. Someone makes a film starring a handsome, charismatic black actor like Mahershala Ali playing a sympathetic lead role? Find some way to call that “sickening,” “boneheaded” “racism.”
2.) If white theater audiences applaud a film starring a black actor, there must be something wrong with that movie. It must be examined until its evil secrets are revealed. Or, one can simply boycott the film in question, and fall back on quotes from Malcolm X.
3.) Whites and blacks are not to feel affection or respect for each other. You can’t see why affection and respect between blacks and whites is racist? Keep looking till you find it. You wouldn’t want to be a thought criminal, now would you? The punishments are harsh.
Apparently not all blacks feel this way. Monique Judge reports receiving an email from Harry Belafonte. Belafonte was a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and an active Civil Rights campaigner. In the email Judge posted, Belafonte wrote,
I am compelled to drop this note to thank the filmmakers for having made this film … I knew Don Shirley, and, in fact, had an office across the street from his at Carnegie Hall, and I experienced much of what he did at the same time. This movie is accurate, it is true, and it’s a wonderful movie that everyone should see. The few people who appear to be objecting to the film’s depiction of the time and the man are dead wrong, and, if the basis of their resentment stems from it having been written and/or directed by someone who isn’t African American, I disagree with them even more … I personally thank the filmmakers for having told this important story from a very different lens, one no less compelling than any other.