You couldn’t be blamed for thinking that Green Book is probably the latest in a long tradition of award season movies that seem like they were designed to make white people feel good about themselves. “Seem like” is the key phrase here, because I don’t think making white people feel good was director Peter Farrelly’s (yes, the guy who made Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, believe it or not) sole intention, or even necessarily a conscious one. It’s just something we naturally gravitate to, wanting to feel good about ourselves and to see ourselves as arguably better and less bigoted than we actually are.
The question I thought a lot about as I was watching Green Book was, is that a bad thing? Because Green Book was comically, staggeringly successful at making me feel good, about myself and about humanity. Sure, I could essentially predict every dramatic beat in it ahead of time, but when the expected scene arrived it felt not so much corny as cathartic, a moment I not only expected but had wanted to see, even if I hadn’t admitted it yet.
Viggo Mortensen plays Tony Vallalonga, aka Tony Lip, an Italian-American knockaround guy from the Bronx who works as a bouncer at the Copa in 1962, kissing up to mob bosses and roughing up knuckleheads when they interrupt the show (gotta show da respect). When the Copa closes for renovation, Tony’s search for a way to supplement his lost income leads him to Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an eccentric and persnickety African-American who lives in a palatial apartment above Carnegie Hall. Dr. Shirley employs a butler, greets Tony in a strange robe, and sits on a throne.
Dr. Shirley, a piano prodigy who’s about to embark on a tour through the Deep South, needs Tony’s skills as a driver and problem solver. He hands Tony the Green Book, an actual travel book of the time, which advised black travelers on where to stay and what to avoid to keep out of danger in the Jim Crow South.
A poor white guy driving around a rich black guy? Classic role reversal! “Former racist sees how the other side lives” is a tried-and-true trope going back generations. As Guy Torry’s character tells Edward Norton’s in American History X when the latter arrives in the prison laundry room, “you’re the n**ger in here.”
Streamlined though it is, Green Book does add some nuance to this basic framework. When Dr. Shirley plays his first manor house in the south, Tony elects to stay outside shooting dice with the other chauffeurs and valets (all black) rather than go inside with Dr. Shirley and polish the debutantes’ pearls. When Dr. Shirley later reams him out for gambling, Tony points out that all the other drivers had stayed outside too. To which Dr Shirley retorts, “the difference is, you had a choice.”
Part of the joy of watching Green Book is watching these two tremendous actors go back and forth at each other. It’s a little like the friendship version of A Star is Born, where you know these two will become unlikely friends but still can’t wait to see it happen. They make something of an “odd couple,” shall we say, the fastidious snobby doctor who claims never to have eaten fried chicken and the swearing, gambling, self-described “bullshit artist” from da Bronx. Think Tony might be able to teach the Doc to loosen up a little in exchange for teaching Tony’s lesson in white privilege? …It might happen, I won’t spoil it.
At first I was resistant to the idea of a guy named “Viggo Mortensen” playing an Italian-American. He’s god damn Danish fer crissakes, I could imagine the real Tony saying. I’d love to complain on behalf of all my fellow Italian-Americans about getting erased yet again (first Miles Teller and now this?!?) but the thing is, Mortensen is brilliant. And, truth be told, reminded me a lot of my grandfather, from the fireplug build to the Humphrey Bogart hair. Much of Green Book rang true, occasionally painfully so, but ultimately flattering.
Enshrouded as it is in the midst of so many familiar storylines, what eventually makes Green Book materialize as a singular story is its specificity. When Dr. Shirley lumps Tony in with the fire-breathing segregationists down south, Tony objects. “I got more in common with the sheenies on the corner than these rednecks down here,” Tony pleads.
Which is perfect, both in its use of a racial slur in a defense of how not-racist he is, and in the way Italian-Americans like to see ourselves as separate from “the real racists” even while getting to sit on the good side of the counter. When I was growing up, child of boomer hippies that I was, my father always told me that using any racial talk around my grandfather (who died when I was five) was a good way to catch a smack — grandad still being sore about all the slurs directed at him growing up. Later when I was helping clean out my grandmother’s stuff after she died, I found a card my grandfather had written her when he was stationed in the Pacific during the war. It was just a picture he’d taken of some half clothed Melanesian islander woman and it said “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” on the back.
Probably not as racist as, say, the things Frank Sinatra would say about Sammy Davis Jr. during a roast, but not a sentiment the family would brag about either. I thought a lot about my grandfather during Green Book. In part, the film is honest about the gulf between Tony’s public line and his private action (in one of the first scenes, he secretly throws away a pair of water glasses because his black plumbers used them, setting up his later en-wokening). It’s also wildly optimistic about Tony’s ability to change. A lot of the movie comes down to how much you buy his character’s arc.
Tony comes to understand and appreciate the black experience a little more? Sure, that makes sense. But there’s even a scene where Tony shrugs off homosexuality, which would be totally unbelievable for an Italian tough guy in 1962. Or at least it would be if Tony hadn’t expressed it so eloquently: “I work at a night club in New York City, I know the world’s a complicated place.”
That’s the artistry of Green Book, rendering you powerless against its saccharine charms with a well-placed word. Well-placed words delivered by wonderful actors, anyway (it’s jarring every time we transition from Ali/Mortensen scenes to the minor characters, who aren’t nearly as good).
Green Book certainly paints a rosy picture of race relations, but ultimately I don’t think its little white lies are a bad thing. Like my father did with me, it’s telling us a story that makes our grandfathers seem better than they probably were. But it does so as an example of how we should be, as an aspirational ideal that maybe we’ll live up to one day even if we didn’t yesterday. I don’t know if Green Book‘s world is the real world, but it’s a nice one to live in for a while.