About halfway through watching Green Book, I fell into a kind of nostalgic reverie and imagined I was watching one of those jovial, harmless 1980s buddy movies, like Midnight Run or Trains, Planes and Automobiles.
ou know the kind of thing: two mismatched heroes unwisely take to the road to endure mortifying mishaps while learning that neither was quite so objectionable as they originally seemed. That’s pretty much exactly what happens in Peter Farrelly’s multi-Oscar nominated yarn, but its jovial tone belies the fact that it’s based a true story, and tackles the very serious subject of racism.
It’s 1962, and Italian-American roughneck Frank ‘Tony Lips’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is working as a bouncer at New York’s Copacabana nightclub when a punch-up with a mafia boss’s son leads to an unexpected career hiatus. At a loose end, he sees a newspaper ad looking for a driver to ferry a musician through a tour of the deep South. So far so good, thinks Tony, but when he turns up for the interview he discovers with a shock that the musician is black.
Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a revered pianist whose artful jazz and classical stylings have made him a sought after live act. He’s a refined and cultured man, and his advisors are horrified when he decides to hire Tony, an uncouth loudmouth who eats and smokes constantly, sometimes at the same time. But Dr. Shirley, as everyone calls him, is no fool: Tony can look after himself, an attribute that might will come in handy down south. It does.
Before they leave New York, Don’s manager hands Tony a Green Book, a depressing but necessary travellers’ guide telling African-Americans which hotels and cafés will tolerate them below the Mason-Dixon line. As it turns out, even some of the hotels Don is booked to play won’t allow him in the restaurant, and when he performs for a private party at a Savannah mansion, the owner politely refuses to let him use the bathroom.
All of this is food for thought for Tony, an unrefined and sketchily educated man who’s a bit of a racist himself. But even he begins to recognise the ugly absurdity of Jim Crow attitudes, and besides, him and Don are becoming friends. American reviewers have drawn comparisons between Green Book and Driving Miss Daisy, another multi-Oscar nominated movie that politely explored racial tensions in a moving vehicle. That film aired a rather sanguine and simplistic attitude to American race relations that seemed sharply at odds with contemporary reality: after all, it was released just two years before Rodney King and the LA riots.
But if a sentimental race movie felt out of place in 1989, Green Book seems like a downright throwback after Ferguson, Charlotte, Trump, and recent Hollywood films like Moonlight and BlacKkKlansman. Compared to the nuanced likes of Moonlight, Green Book’s politics seem crude, saccharin, positively antediluvian.
It’s been accused by some critics of underplaying the brutality of the old South, and Don Shirley’s family have questioned the buddy thesis at the movie’s heart: Tony was Don’s employee, they insist, never his friend. All of these complaints have merit, and Green Book can count itself extremely fortunate to have earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination.
And yet, and yet, when you put all that to one side and just watch it, Green Book is an irresistible piece of entertainment. Mahershala Ali, who in Moonlight was a soulful drug dealer and has tended to play compromised hard nuts, here expands his repertoire with a quiet, detailed portrayal of a fussy, fastidious, isolated man. Acclaimed as a musician, Don Shirley keeps the world at arm’s length and seems at odds with mainstream African-American culture: “I’m blacker than you are!” Tony decides, after finding out that his employer has never heard of Aretha Franklin. But Don’s reserve is partly motivated by a closely held secret - he’s gay, which in 1960s America leaves him doubly outcast.
Tony is surprisingly broad-minded about Don’s sexuality, and makes the perfect foil for the neurotic, introspective musician. While Don thinks, Tony talks: he has a cheerful and enviably uncomplicated attitude to the world, and is a man of appetites (at one point he folds an entire pizza in half and shoves it in his mouth). Not previously known for his comic timing, Viggo Mortensen hilariously inhabits the pugnacious but fair-minded Tony, who constantly dispenses unasked for opinions and at one point assures Don that his music is “like Liberace, only better!”. He and Ali are wonderful in this film, which may have its ethical shortcomings but is tremendous fun.