Much Like Its Setting, Green Book Feels Like a Backward Glance at a Bygone Era

Green Book follows a 1962 concert tour through the south for Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a world-class black pianist being chauffeured for the duration by Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a tough, boisterous bouncer with mob ties from the Bronx. Despite their differences, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond while confronting racism and danger in an era of segregation.

The biggest question that arises from the film is this:  Where and what exactly is the line between creative license and misrepresentation? In the aftermath of Green Book’s release, the family of Dr. Don Shirley spoke out to the media about what it characterized as gross misrepresentations of Dr. Shirley’s life and his relationship with Tony Vallelonga contained in the film. Edwin Shirley III, Dr. Shirley’s nephew, and his Dr. Shirley’s brother, Maurice Shirley, have stated that he did not ever consider Tony to be a friend and had always maintained close ties to his family, despite the plot thread claiming otherwise. Dr. Shirley’s surviving family also took umbrage with the suggestion that he was disconnected from black people and the black experience, as he was a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King’s, was present at the 1965 March on Selma, and befriended countless other notable black musicians. The presentation of Shirley and Vallelonga’s relationship worked in terms of establishing the quality of the film itself. It took societal stereotypes and those that have historically been portrayed on film regarding the respective sophistication of whites and blacks and flipped them on their head with the black character being the sophisticated, educated person and the white person being the working class man with the need to be cultured, and created a relationship between two characters that satisfyingly grows in an organic way with one supplying the other with the tools necessary to improve the personality defects and life deficiencies they had at the beginning of the film. However, does the strengthening of the film’s story justify the misrepresentation of Dr. Shirley as a man and the perversion of his life story?

Hollywood films have always taken liberties with true stories for the sake of forming compelling dramas that keep audiences engrossed, hence why they’re “based on a true story” and not just a “true story.” But in a time where the need for increased representation throughout society is the topic du jour, and the most talked about film of the year featured a nearly exclusively black cast with the onscreen story and narrative and a film set that was equally diverse, Green Book feels like a step backward into a Hollywood and world that is slowly seeing the door shut on it. The film’s namesake is that of the famed Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook utilized by blacks during Jim Crow during road trips outlining the safe and available accommodations for their use as they traveled the United States. Despite this important piece of American history unique to black people being part of the plot, black people remain uncentered, instead the story of a bigoted white man and his experience with race taking precedence. The film’s premise of an exceptional negro being the impetus toward transforming a bigoted white person into finally recognizing that black people aren’t so bad is an outdated one that many people, minorities in particular, feel is no longer needed onscreen. Many argue that for far too long, changing the minds of racists has been a burden unfairly hoisted upon the targets of bigotry rather than demanding that those people with bias in their hearts change their behavior on their own. Why should black suffering lead to white salvation? Green Book would have killed in the 90s and in fact, it reminded me a lot of Driving Miss Daisy, the 1989 Oscar winning film starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, while I watched it. But in an era where an American President lamented that people didn’t recognize the good and bad on “both sides” following a riot involving white supremacists, lauding a film that seemingly argues that the key to combating racism is recognizing the good people on “both sides” seems an argument people are no longer willing to accept. Green Book has avoided any major controversy arising from the Shirley family’s objections this awards season, and while the nominations for Ali and Mortensen are deserved, the glossing over of the ethical issues behind the film and the retread, familiar feeling of its story speaks to racial issues within film criticism as well. Many minority critics at amateur and less mainstream publications and websites have cited these problems but have been drowned out by major critics and awards voters with a lot less diversity. Its success in spite of these issues only serves to further make clear what an anachronism Green Book seems to be.

Green Book’s actors perform well with the material they are given, despite the ethical issues present within the script. Mahershala Ali fully embodies the quiet dignity that an educated, capable man like Dr. Shirley would have to conduct himself with during the United States’ Jim Crow era. In the film, Dr. Shirley juggles multiple aspects of his personality that make his existence in a bigoted society a struggle, whether it’s his race, intelligence, or love life. Ali masterfully juggles all of the emotions that come with accurately portraying such a complex character. Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Tony Vallelonga is a transformative one for the skilled actor with him convincingly becoming a 1950s working class wiseguy, however stereotypically this was written for the film. Both Ali and Mortensen are extremely skilled actors who develop a believable, natural onscreen chemistry that completely carries the film.

While Green Book features notable performances from Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen and a story and character development that is both entertaining and believable, the outdated genericness of the film weighs it down considerably. When combined with the questionable ethics that occurred with the writing of the film’s script and its production, Green Book devolves from a milquetoast, 90s feeling film to something more uncomfortable. The film’s statement on American race relations feel like a rehashed statement being made at the worst possible time as a generational transition in how racism is observed and combated is taking place. From a pure cinematic standpoint, the film is pretty decent and works very well. But in today’s changing times, it arrives a bit too late.


Image:  Universal Pictures

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About the Author: Garrett

Garrett is the founder of CinemaBabel, a regular guest host on the Movies That Matter podcast, and a lover of film in general. He currently resides in Washington, D.C.