If I had a dollar for every time I thought “are you kidding me” while watching Green Book I would have made enough money to bribe of every critic who voted on the Golden Globes to retract every award they gave it (save for Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali because he’s pretty good). You may respond “well that seems a tad harsh, it can’t be that bad” and that would be a fair response. Green Book is a perfectly pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
It’s competently constructed; the actors do the best with the material they are given; it borders on rewarding sometimes. However, the rest of the time Green Book is a crushingly uninspired film that is so desperate to please everyone that it ends up a toothless. Green Book presents itself as a progressive film, but in reality, is a hollow reminder that despite taking huge leaps in terms of diversity (Black Panther, Blackkklansman, Crazy Rich Asians) Hollywood is still deeply regressive.
The actors are not to blame for the failures of Green Book. Every problem can be traced back to fundamental flaws in the film’s construction. Green Book’s shortcomings are so entwined with its design that you could not remove them without completely rethinking how you told the story. Part of the problem is that the (based on a true) story Green Book chooses to tell lends itself to the kind of flawed filmmaking that undermines everything it hopes to be.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Green Book is about African-American classic and jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer who served as his bodyguard and driver. The film takes place during one of Shirely’s concert tours in the 1960s. The pair as they travel around the American South and we watch as their uniformed (read: racist) preconceptions of each other are disproven, giving way to friendship between the two.
On paper the premise reads as a kind of reverse Driving Miss Daisy, a piece of well-intentioned, if tone-deaf, feelgood filmmaking. In this regard Green Book had the opportunity to demonstrate how far we, as a culture, have come. Why not make a movie in the same vein and tone as Driving Miss Daisy, but this time take a more critical look at the issues surrounding racism? It’s not only an intriguing idea, it’s actually a downright smart one.
Unfortunately, director Peter Farrelly is so obviously ill-equipped to make that film. The brush with which Farrelly paints is just as broad as the one Bruce Beresford used when he made Driving Miss Daisy. The result is the Green Book ends up a spiritual successor that is somehow even more tone deaf than the film it is proceeding, if by no other virtue than the fact that it has twenty-nine years on Driving Miss Daisy and yet somehow manages to fall headfirst into the exact same pitfalls.
Chief among Green Book’s problems is its unwillingness to be specific. Shirley’s characterisation can be boiled down to ‘smart and good at music’, Vallenlonga’s meanwhile starts and ends with ‘New York Italian. Green Book never specifies when exactly it’s set despite being based on, as it frequently reminds us, actual events. How does Green Book propose we ‘fix’ racism (a vague statement in itself)? Be nicer! Of course! How simple! If only someone had thought of that before!
Never does Green Book even attempt to dig into the root causes of racism. Here discrimination is always the fault of the individual rather than the power structures that shape them. This is somewhat ironic considering that the title is drawn from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a mid-20th century travel guidebook that outlined hotels, motels, and restaurants that were African-American friendly at the time.
One might think that a book that literally outlines discriminatory and non-discriminatory institutions would be worth looking into as it might be a good starting point for a discussion of how racism became so institutionalised that travel guidebooks had to be written on the topic. But no. The Negro Motorist Green Book is seen fleetingly. Never is it discussed. It’s clear that Green Book doesn’t really care about the text from which its title is drawn.
All it wants is the label.
Because Green Book is only interested in labels. It does not care about the systems that created them.
How exactly it reached this point is unclear. Maybe the writers were afraid that if it really delved into the issues surrounding racism it would stop being a feelgood film. Or perhaps Farrally, a Caucasian man, felt he really lacked the authority to make a film about the topic. In either case is this a poor excuse. It is possible to be Caucasian and make a film that discusses race. It is possible to make a film that about racism that’s feel good. I know this because that film already exists.
It’s called Zootopia.
While not perfect (the animal metaphors get really wonky if you think about them too hard) what Zootopia proves is that to make a film about racism, you have to be willing to discuss it. This is obvious, of course. You have to discuss race if you want your film to be a part of a wider ongoing conversation about racism. Yet every step of the way Green Book manages to fail at this incredibly basic task.
Green Book is fine enough on the surface. But surface is all it is.
Not only can we can do better, at this point it is borderline reprehensible not to.