You probably would not expect a biographical story about racism set in 1960s America to mesh well with a road trip comedy, yet Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly, does exactly this, and pulls it off surprisingly well.
Based on a true story, Green Book centres around Anthony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a.k.a. Tony Lip, an Italian-American bouncer working at the Copacabana nightclub in New York. After the Copacabana closes for an extended period, Tony goes looking for work to help support his family. He finds a job as a driver/bodyguard for an African-American pianist called “Doc” Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), whose performing tour will take him through the American South. The movie is set in 1962 at the height of the civil rights movement, so things are almost guaranteed to get ugly, and they do. The film gets its name from a real-life travel guide published by and for African Americans during this period to help them find safe and accepting places to stay, which Tony uses to help plan his itinerary.
There is a lot of friction between Tony and Don Shirley. Tony is quite plainly racist. He not only uses racist language and throws around stereotypes, but is also the kind of man to throw the glasses that some black plumbers at his house were drinking out of into the trash.
Shirley is highly sophisticated and received a classical education in Russia. He only plays more popular music because Americans would not accept a black classical pianist.
Shirley finds himself in an uneasy position. He does not identify with African-American culture, and yet his race prevents him from being accepted among the white high society that he plays for. Tony on the other hand is not at all ashamed of who he is. He is working class and proud of it. Tony points out (in a very tactless way) that his experiences and lifestyle make him more “black” than Shirley. This of course does not go over well. Shirley, for his part, is annoyed by Tony’s boorish manners and is frustrated by Tony’s unwillingness to better himself, despite comparatively fewer barriers.
The slobs vs. snobs dynamic is a big part of the movie’s humour, much of which comes from Tony’s outrageously crude words and actions, with Shirley in the role of the straight man. In addition to the blunter forms of comedy like this, there are also subtle and clever jokes as well, many of which involve callbacks to earlier scenes. While the mixing of comedy and drama is uneven, it does not feel jarring or out of place. The funny moments add a lot to the film and do not detract from the more serious moments, and they serve to encourage people to see a movie dealing with a heavy topic that they might not otherwise. The film also features an appealing soundtrack incorporating less modernly known (but still evocative and enjoyable) popular songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Whether Green Book succeeds in conveying its message is debatable. The story is told from Tony’s perspective, not Shirley’s, and possibly falls into the mighty-whitey trope, especially in his role as Shirley’s protector. There are also shades of the magical negro trope in Shirley’s efforts to make Tony a better person. However, there are complications to this, since both characters learn things from each other, and the class and employer/employee dynamic between them usually puts Shirley in a higher position. If there are any out-of-character stereotypes at play, perhaps they cancel out, and perhaps that was a deliberate decision. In Green Book I don’t really get the sense that one side is patronizing or being patronized; however, my perspective as a white man may not be the most reliable. I would encourage you to see the film and judge for yourself, since it is well worth seeing in any case.
It may not have gotten much publicity, but I found Green Book to be both entertaining and thought-provoking, and I suspect this will be one of the movies from 2018 that people will remember for a long time to come.