Green Book has such a good message that it’s pretty much enough. You may be able to see where the story is going, but if it’s going to reach any racists who need to hear this message, it can’t be too outside the box.
In 1962, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) takes a holiday job as Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali)’s driver on tour in the south. Even though Dr. Shirley is an acclaimed, famous pianist, off stage he’s treated like every other black person in the south.
The Green Book is the guide to hotels that allow black people. In addition to accepting segregated accommodations, Shirley needs someone as street smart as Tony to problem solve on the road.
Tony tests Shirley at first, posturing and all, but he wants the job so he’s only seeing where the line is. Shirley pushes Tony to speak better and do better just because he believes Tony can be, but Tony’s street smarts sure come in handy.
There’s a definite odd couple/buddy movie dynamic going on. Tony introduces Shirley to black rock and roll stars like Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin. Shirley catches Tony stealing and scamming and frowns upon it.
It gets real when Shirley goes to the wrong bar and racists assault him. Later, racism and homophobia meet in a deadly combo.
Tony may be inarticulate, but he’s one of the good guys. He holds his own racist attitudes but he knows it’s wrong to assault and arrest black people.
The worst thing Tony does is throw out some glasses that some black repairmen drank from. That’s not good, but they are Tony’s glasses so if he wants to buy new glasses for a stupid reason that’s none of my business.
Tony’s wife Dolores (Linda Carellini), however, is perfectly tolerant for a New Yorker in 1962. The real Dolores may have actually been that modern, and it still took months on the road with Dr. Shirley to teach Tony.
Of course, both Tony and Shirley learn something from this experience on the road together. A big lesson Tony learns is that lashing out is never as satisfying as he thinks it will be.
Tony thinks he’s standing up to racist cops by hitting them, but landing in a racist southern jail for a night isn’t really teaching the racist cops any lesson.
You win by being a rich pianist while the loser racists stew in their desperation to feel superior. Ice-T once tweeted, “You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.” It’s that.
Knowing the right people works too. Shirley can remain calm because he knows this will always end with his highbrow contacts setting things right. Even that has a cost for him though.
So yeah, it’s a little pat that Tony and Shirley are more alike than they thought, and Tony learns to identify with Shirley’s suffering. At some points, Shirley even explicitly states how he’s an outcast from both white and black society. It’s on the nose, but he’s not wrong.
Mortensen and Ali have such great chemistry and give such great performances, that it’s easy to watch them banter and teach the world to be more tolerant. It looks like Ali is really playing the piano too, unless that’s some really complicated CGI.
It’s supposed to be funny when Tony forces Shirley to try fried chicken, because it’s playing on the racist stereotype. Stereotype or no, what’s wrong with Shirley wanting to eat healthy? I don’t think it’s funny to force someone to have excess calories and saturated fat.
Green Book is based on a true story, so it’s entirely possible that anything that seems too Hollywood actually happened. Either way, in 2018 it’s very important to remind people how things were in 1962 so we don’t end up back then again.
Green Book played at AFI Fest last week, is now playing in limited release and opens wide November 21.