Peter Farrelly’s new comedy-drama, Green Book, is not without its charm nor its spectacular display of performance, but it is also entrenched in post-release criticism and controversy. The film depicts the relationship between African American world-renowned pianist, Don Shirley, and his hired chauffeur/security on a concert tour through the deep south, the Bronx born and bred, Tony Lip. Green Book’s emotional retelling of this real-life friendship seems to be a new adventure for Farrelly, whose previous films include the Dumb and Dumber collection, There’s Something About Mary, and Shallow Hall. Green Book proves Farrelly’s ability to create a captivatingly gladsome tale of friendship and adversity, but exposes the stumbling in the sincerity of his investigation into the discriminative segregation of 1960s America which seems to be more of a footnote to the overtold and glossed over story of white saviours in black history.
In 1962’s New York City, Tony Lip (Vallelonga) works as a bouncer in an exclusive club which is shutting down for renovations, leaving him unemployed and in need of a job to provide for his family. The film informs us early on of Tony’s racial views as his wife offers some lemonade to two African American handymen in the Vallelonga household, and Tony later discards of the glasses they used. But he’s then headhunted by Dr Don Shirley to be a driver, and upon meeting Shirley, Tony learns that he will be required to be more of a keeper than simply a driver as Shirley knows it will be unsafe for him to travel through the USA’s southern states as a black man. Originally reluctant, Tony agrees to the job and the two head off together, but not before Tony is presented with the titular green book, a guide to “coloured-friendly” places in the south, and a device which the two rely on quite heavily throughout the trip.
On their journey, it becomes clear that the two men serve a purpose to each other that extends their employer/employee set up. Shirley is presented as a handsome, well-to-do, law-abiding gentleman, as conveyed by his insistence for Tony to go back and pay for a special stone he has picked up off the floor or making him get out of his car to pick up the litter he threw away. Tony contrasts Shirley in every possible way: he is an insatiable eater, a potty-mouthed rough guy, and at the core of his character is his dedication to his wife and family; something that Shirley lives without.
The film is still one to watch and deserves its avalanche of award nominations. The tone of the film matches the elegance of Shirley’s piano playing, making it a warm watch, with divine editing, particularly prominent in its ability to arouse emotion in its audiences with the scenes of the two men simply talking on their long car journeys, sharing their starkly different pasts and teaching each other the lessons of their different worlds. The contextual pitfalls are certainly compensated for in the performances delivered from front runners Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, but also the more beautifully understated portrayal of Tony’s wife by Linda Cardellini. The two men provide wonderfully distinct executions of their characters, especially Ali who carefully masters the troubled refineries that make up Dr Don Shirley. The story itself is a joyous tale of uplifting moments and cheesy bonding between the two protagonists and is an entertaining two-hour watch.
However, the film has had to face some justified criticism for being “racially tone deaf” due to its ignorance to the reality of race relations during this period. A major issue permeating the film is its fantastical portrayal of how quickly and inexplicably Tony changes his attitudes towards African Americans. As aforementioned, the film sets up his character as prejudiced when he throws away the used glasses, and also through his language describing black people and Asians, however once Tony is on the road with Shirley, he suddenly seems to be an expert in “black culture”, educating the Dr about black musicians, fried chicken, and jazz. This sudden character change seems more like an abrupt misjudgement in the script, rather than a nuanced character development. The film also overlooks several other angles that could’ve provided a more consequential story of social divisions, such as Shirley’s sexuality – a topic which is reduced to a mere short scene – or the tribulations that their friendship would likely have posed. The film ends just as it lives: with a cheesy display of love and appreciation that cannot help to force a smile on its audiences’ faces despite its less than realistic depiction of race relations.