Based on the true story of a friendship, Green Book gives its viewers an in on a particular eventful journey during terrible times.
A very enjoyable true-story adaptation that's sadly ill-informed on racism. Yay?
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 in his first solo venture – is precisely the kind of film that’s meant to be a part of the awards season. It boasts all the right ingredients: a story based on actual events, an array of incredible actors, sprinkled with topical themes to taste. Like Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman that released earlier this year, however, Farrelly misses the point by a couple of hundred miles.
[…] the makers use [the actual Green Book] merely as a prop than as a reminder of just how important a tool it was […].
Here’s the kicker though: the movie is delightful to watch. Between the solid turnouts by Academy Award nominee Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic, 2016) and Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, 2016), and a narrative that’s 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 feeling 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 Jim Crow”. There’s just 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.
Writing Letters 101
(L-R) Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali star in Peter Farrelly's Green Book, a Universal Pictures, Dreamworks Pictures, Amblin Partners, and Participant Media release.
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 (a very expository dialogue on) how discriminatory this is. Not unlike specific arcs in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Bright, among other movies that grossly oversimplify racism, Farrelly makes Tony’s redemption a whole lot simpler—an unsurprising decision, considering Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s actual son, co-wrote the screenplay.
[…] it’s important to acknowledge how misguided and dismissive [Green Book‘s] attitude toward systemic racism actually is.
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”—nothing more or less. 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 quite easy 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 tons of experiences to unpack, but the movie opens the whitest box there is.
All of this doesn’t necessarily make Green Book a terrible film—like I’ve 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 surely has its heart in the right place. It’s a movie about hope, love, unity in diversity, and mutual empowerment, and considering the times we live in, that’s not a bad thing. Then again, it’s important to acknowledge how misguided and dismissive its attitude toward systemic racism is in reality. 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. So long as you know.
Green Book is like that uncle of yours who isn’t actively racist but grew up with enough internalization to dismiss the #BlackLivesMatter movement because: “I have black friends too.” Like his ancient ignorant-but-well-meaning political stance, Farrelly’s film is one you’ll probably love, but can’t help frustrating yourself with the missed opportunity that the movie is. If none of that fazes you, you’ll be just fine.