Starring: Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen, Linda Cardellini
Director: Peter Farrelly
In the 1960’s, a racist Italian bouncer Tony (Mortensen) takes on a job driving Dr Don Shirley, a black classical musician, on tour through the American South. While initially complete opposites, the two find their time together eye opening, and a friendship slowly develops between the two.
While the film purports to be based on a real situation and relationship, the film has been criticised by the family of Shirley for being one sided. They were not asked for their input and knowledge of the relationships and character of Don, and therefore the film is all from Tony’s perspective. The film also has been criticised as functioning as a narrative that has a white person in the saviour role of the black man. Watching this film, and knowing that it won several Oscars and nominations this year, it was impossible to not also be aware of that controversy as well. While I don’t feel qualified to comment on these aspects of the film, it’s important I think to be aware of them. Personally, sometimes I find films about the way that black people have been treated through history quite upsetting and I feel that their stories need to be heard and their experiences acknowledged.
The title Green Book comes from a small travel guide for black people in that era which told them which places would accept black guests. Segregation was still sadly in force in this era, and the themes of separation and racism are the themes of this film. The things that keep us apart, the way we judge people on appearances or attitudes as opposed to their inner value, our sense that we know something about someone without ever examining where those ideas came from.
On a basic level, the film functions as an odd couple/road trip narrative. Two people from opposite ends of a spectrum are forced to spend time together and in the process build a bond as they find they have more in common than you’d see at first glance. The humour derives from their differences and how they annoy each other, and the drama and emotion arises from their bonding and how they each are taught to grow or are forced to work together and help each other. In that sense, this film functions very well. Mahershala Ali is a beautiful actor, who has presence and dignity. He always gives such a restrained performance in anything that he does, drawing you into his emotional experience. If this was a comedy duo, he would be the straight man. On the opposite end, we have Viggo Mortensen, who plays an Italian American who is a family man and a night club bouncer. He’s rough and unsophisticated with strong ideas about how the world works and his place in it. He is just warm and witty enough that we can laugh at him, look down on him a little in the beginning. He’s the comedy element in this drama. Sometimes that comedy and dialogue can feel a little on the nose, making it point a little too obvious.
That’s not belittle either performance as being one dimensional, but rather to point out their narrative function, and the fact that it’s not so obviously noticeable is down to the fact that the two are such wonderful performers who really lose themselves in their roles. They are always real and heartfelt in whoever they play, and having these two as the leads is a powerful draw to see this film. In the beginning, they both have rough edges and pull away from each other, each has something important to learn from the other. And it works quite well. You care about these two and want things to work out for them, for them not to get hurt.
I love the car the two travel in. A beautiful blue Cadillac De Ville, with blue interior. It’s the colour of the sky in the golden Summers of your childhood that seemed to go on forever, and it has those little early 60’s touches, the fins and the slightly space age lines as well as the lack of seat belts. It’s a thing of beauty and a great moving location for the film.
I do love a film set in a different time where you can see all the old haircuts and clothes and cars. On the whole, I really liked the two leads and found myself laughing at Tony and empathising with Don. And sometimes laughing at Don’s line delivery and empathising with Tony’s naivete. It’s a film that tries to put the heart and friendship into a story about racism and segregation, and while it’s arguable whether it achieves that aim and whether that aim is a good one, it is an entertaining and emotive film.
See It If: a two hander between such excellent performers as Ali and Mortensen is something to see. A winner at the Oscars this year, it has issues and controversy in it’s wake.