You’d expect a film that gains its title from a relevant travel guide that existed in the ’60s to honor and explore its themes, but then again, you’d be expecting too much from a mainstream American comedy-drama. Right off the bat, it’s easy to spot that “Green Book“—directed by Peter Farrelly (of the Farrelly brothers) in his first solo venture—is the kind of film meant to be a part of the awards season. It boasts all the right ingredients: a story based on actual events and an array of incredible actors sprinkled with topical themes to taste. Like Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” (2018), released earlier this year, however, Farrelly misses the point by a couple hundred miles.
Here’s the kicker though: the movie is delightful to watch. Between the solid turnouts by Viggo Mortensen (“Captain Fantastic,” 2016) and Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight,” 2016) and a narrative worth its emotional weight, “Green Book” successfully deflects its viewers from the significant flaws in its image system. Viewers will be mesmerized by the banter between the leads and some incredibly moving scenes—really, on the first watch, the movie feels like an absolute winner. The more you think about it in retrospect, however, the more chances you have of getting madder. (Or it will probably make you feel better about being utterly ignorant about systemic racism; you choose.)
Allow me to explain. Based on the real-life friendship between Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen) and Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), the film is loosely based on their time together on the road during Shirley’s tour in the deep, highly racist South of ’62. Here is where the actual Green Book comes in—authored by postal employee Victor Hugo Green, “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was “the bible for black travel” during the decades it was active. There’s one problem: the makers use the book merely as a prop than as a reminder of just how important a tool it was for blacks to bypass being victims of white supremacy even while on the move.
It’s not like the makers don’t try, though—in a scene halfway down the movie’s narrative, an initially racist Tony drops Shirley off at one of the recommended places for temporary accommodation in the Green Book. Realizing that this “For Colored Only” motel is incredibly unkempt, he blurts out (in a very expository fashion) how discriminatory this is. Much like specific arcs in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017) and “Bright” (2017), among other movies that grossly oversimplify racism, Farrelly makes Tony’s redemption much simpler—an unsurprising decision, considering Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s actual son, co-wrote the screenplay.
Not that there’s anything wrong with honoring a legacy. An interview with Rachel E. Greenspan published in TIME Magazine implies that Nick only intended to capture the journey of two friends “and what they were going through during this horrendous time in our history.” It’s a logical perspective, but when the time “Green Book” is set in serves a vital backdrop, its reluctance to cover the entire breadth of its sociopolitically dangerous era does get a tad disappointing. It’s pretty predictable, then, to interpret why the real-life Shirley, as Nick recalled, may have wanted the story to be told: “after I’m gone.” There are many experiences to unpack, but the movie opens the whitest box.
This doesn’t necessarily make “Green Book” a terrible film. As I previously stated, it’s consistently enjoyable, and I still don’t regret watching it. Directed by Farrelly with patience and a rich old-world texture, the film has its heart in the right place. It’s a movie about hope, love, unity in diversity, and mutual empowerment—and considering our times, that’s not a bad thing. Then again, it’s essential to acknowledge how misguided and dismissive its attitude toward systemic racism is. For all its qualities, “Green Book” fits into the definition of a problematic fave like a glove. We all have one, and that’s okay. Just so long as you know.
“Green Book” is like your uncle, who isn’t actively racist but grew up with enough internalized discriminatory commentary to unwittingly dismiss any meaningful conversation. He’s lovely, but you can’t help being highly annoyed that he thinks the #BlackLivesMatter movement is overkill because: “I have black friends too.” Like the ignorant-but-well-meaning uncle in your family, Farrelly’s film is one you’ll probably love but also be more than often annoyed by because of what a missed opportunity this is. You’ll find the movie just fine if you’re okay with that.