In a green book, black boys look blue.
Embarking on a concert tour in the American Deep South in 1962, world-class pianist, Dr. Don Shirley, recruits a fowl-mouthed, no bullsh*t driver from the Bronx, Tony Lip, for matters of protection, leading the two men on collision course towards an unexpected friendship.
From one half of the duo who brought us Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal, Me, Myself and Irene, There’s Something About Mary and The Heartbreak Kid, comes a film about the seriousness of racism in 1960s America: Green Book. Considering the director and co-writer, Peter Farrelly’s, heritage in cinema, Green Book amounted to a rather comical but simultaneously moving affair that may have not been a perfect film but did at least deliver a certain sincerity to its proceedings.
According to the family of Dr. Don Shirley, who were reportedly not contacted during the writing or production process of this film, Green Book seemingly took a lot of liberties with its adaptation of a ‘true’ story. The so-called friendship of Shirley and Tony Lip may have been debatable a bond in real life and furtherly Shirley’s relationship with his family may have been perceived as not well translated to the big screen, however, I wouldn’t go so far to say these technical inaccuracies are largely problematic in relation to the film. Green Book was a film about loneliness, identity and, of course, friendship; films are not always meant to be straight adaptations of real-life events or novels or wherever the source material originated from. Films are their own beast, telling a story in such an exclusive manner that the details are reworked and rewired to suit a cinematic narrative. And sure, its not right to misrepresent certain situations on such a large scaled platform like a movie as everything should be checked off and given the appropriate “ok” before the execution, but, at the end of the day, it’s the artistic expression of the artist that counts the most – and that’s something that Green Book understood through and through.
Amongst its notable themes of loneliness, identity and friendship, Green Book really hit on some interesting elements concerning art and its ability to provoke great expression. Green Book managed to explore how the arts can essentially embody the power to express certain passions that the human emotional spectrum cannot fathom. In the world Green Book was set in of ludicrous racism, toxic masculinity and the blurred lines of acceptance, the film had its protagonists utilise the arts to truly speak their mind in ways the characters find challenging or are, plain and simple, restricted from articulating. Whether in Shirley’s furious piano playing after facing a bout of diversity or Lip’s poetic letter writing to his wife after weeks separated from her, art was portrayed as a heightened form of communication – like film. Green Book seemingly understood the language of cinema through its acceptance of art as the greatest form of expression and communication of one’s emotions. Art’s a release – a long, smooth cruise away from the rest of the world on a country highway… sound familiar?
Led by two deservingly acclaimed performances from Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, Green Book really went all out in finding the most quality vessel to carry their message through all forms of audience. The genius of Mortensen’s performance especially really shun through as one of the best elements of Green Book as the man continues to defy expectations, turning out brilliant moment after brilliant moment. And when you have a strength as strong as Mortensen, you need equal strength to level it out: enter Ali. Together these two amounted to some excellent onscreen chemistry as they worked extremely well separately as they did united.
However, I cannot escape the feeling – the biting sense inside me – that as much as Green Book was a smart, introspective and well-engineered film, it offered an element of un-remarkability that made sure the movie never felt as fresh or nuance as it may have thought it was…
We live in an age where African-American filmmakers like Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins and Boots Riley amongst others have almost entirely revolutionised the way we view the ‘Black Experience’ in cinema. A few years ago if I were to ask you what modern day film encapsulates the Black Experience cinematically the best, you would probably say The Help… but cinema has evolved from that point. Now The Help is a good film, there’s not disputing that, but nowadays cinema centering on the Black Experience is more subtle and metaphorical and, for lack of a better term, more creative and expansive in their thematics. Look at what we have received from African-American cinema recently: detailed horror flicks like Get Out, surreal Arthouse pictures like Sorry To Bother You, large-scaled superhero blockbusters like Black Panther, poetic theatre-like features like Moonlight and even heavily stylised takes on the biopic genre like BlacKkKlansman. It’s almost like we have entered this new prestigious and respectable era of Blaxploitation where straight dramatic biopics like Green Book no longer have a place. And yeah, what Green Book tries to say is important and will always be relevant and necessary in the dissection of the human condition… but I think that other films have accomplished translating Green Book‘s ideas in better, more nuance ways.
Cinema evolves like every other artform – for example, look at superhero films. In the early 2000s, superhero movies were very straightforward, appropriately ignorant of certain comic book traits and embodied singular good guy vs. bad guy narratives. Nowadays superhero films are large-scaled spectacles, engrossed in the weirdness of their comic book origins and intricately woven in with their sequels, prequels and spin-offs – superhero movies evolved. One of the main reasons 2018’s Venom was so lacklustre was because it didn’t feel aligned with the current climate of superhero movies – it felt like a film meant for another age. In similar ways, Green Book felt detached from films centered around the Black Experience in the late 2010s. Green Book felt like a film from 2010 where, alongside The Help it would have been a genius cinematic move, but today, its just another film about the mistreatment of African-Americans in the 1960s.
I do not want to trash Green Book or suggest its a bad movie – because its not. Green Book knew what it was doing and knew how it wanted to do it; its only problem was that it did not feel aware of what period of cinema it was being released in. And I also do not want you to think that I consider Green Book similar quality to Venom, because, man does Venom have more than one big glaring problem, Green Book just found itself in an awkward situation of timing. And with bad timing comes a lack of remarkability to which can leave an initially good film real stale, real quickly.
Although, I cannot help but express my solid enjoyment of this film. Green Book was both comfortable and disturbing. Like jazz music it moved unexpectedly at times – when the audience would feel warm the film would then take a sudden 180 into a state of coldness. Green Book knew how to manipulate its audience’s emotions and make for a rather spell-bounding experience. A quaint buddy road trip at its best, Green Book retained its emotional stance from beginning to end and did so incredibly well and effectively.
Despite ending in a real anti-climactic way with the specific closing moment of the movie appearing rather jarring, I did honestly like Green Book. The film moved at a soft pace and imbued an element of heart that was only boosted by the well-matched leads of Mortensen and Ali. Harbouring one of the most important messages of 21st century cinema but expressing said message through some stale means, I have to say Green Book could have been better but was serviceable and rather lovely at its core. A film I would still certainly recommend, despite its negatives, Green Book was a quaint ride through harsh history towards a brighter future of bonding and unity.
Green Book is a bloody… CRUSADE!!
- The Refinery 2019, Green Book (2018), IMP Awards, TMDb, viewed 26 January 2019, <http://www.impawards.com/2018/green_book.html> (Featured Image)
- LaSalle, M 2018, Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali achieve screen magic in ‘Green Book’, Datebook, Hearst Communications Inc., viewed 26 January 2019, <https://datebook.sfchronicle.com/movies-tv/viggo-mortensen-and-mahershala-ali-achieve-screen-magic-in-green-book>