Green Book is a hugely entertaining movie, with two lead characters worlds apart at the start of the story and, unsurprisingly, considerably closer by the end. Those actors, Mahershali Ali and Viggo Mortensen, offer utterly engaging performances and the most important thing to say here is that while there is debate to be had about how Green Book attacks its subject matter of America’s racism, such is skill of Ali and Mortensen that you’d have a heart of stone to do anything other than walk out of this film with a smile on your face and perhaps a tear forming on the corner of your eye. I’d see the film a second time simply to enjoy the actors’ work once again.
Ali plays Dr Don Shirley, an educated, talented and refined man whose love is classical piano music but whose recording and playing career is limited because white record companies don’t believe a white audience will accept a black man playing classical music. So Shirley instead plays a selection of jazz with a classical approach. He’s well known and successful in the north, but this story picks up Shirley’s story as he’s about to embark on a tour of the South, for which he needs a driver and go-to man to chaperone him.
That driver turns out to be American Italian from the Bronx, Tony Vallelonga, or Tony Lip for short. Tony’s an uneducated, good hearted nightclub bouncer, a man who knows how to bend rules when he needs to, and with his fists if he has to. He’s also a family man, and when he loses his job for a spell the pressure’s on to find an income to support that family. So he ends up taking on the role of chauffeur for Dr Shirley.
The Green Book of the title is the guide Tony has to use to find accommodation in the South which which will house black travellers.
Now there’s nothing new in an odd-couple road movie, but the fact is this story is based on the relationship of the real life Don Shirley and Tony Lip, and this gives the film a great deal of heft, and likeability. And as the writers include a member of Tony Lip’s family, we can assume there’s a fair degree of accuracy here. But that almost certainly means there’s an unwillingness to show either man in anything other than a favourable light. The pair confront all manner of examples of racist behaviour, from the restaurant to the bar, from the hotel to the police station. They emerge from these scrapes a little bloodied but with their integrity largely intact. So the film could be accused of being a little too good to be true in respect of its lead characters, but you have to remind yourself that this plays as both comedy and drama, and the sharp script and skill of the actors is such that these doubts surface but don’t linger long.
Green Book follows a long line of films which have dealt with the history of racism in America’s South. I still recall the out and out drama Mississippi Burning from 1988, with Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe playing two northern FBI agents trying to solve a black hate crime.
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained from 2012 attacked the theme as a Western, with a healthy dose – of course – of violence and humour.
Spike Lee’s Black Klansman also used humour last year, and although its story was set in the north, its key organisation the KKK, is of course rooted further south.
Green Book has a much softer and feel good tone to it, and while it exposes racist behaviour and culture, it does so, to repeat my opening line, so as to leave a smile on your face. Some may find this effective and others I suspect may say it’s treating its subject matter too lightly. I did have those concerns from time to time during the film, but the truth is I was so entertained and drawn into the growing friendship of the lead characters that those concerns were largely put to one side. And there’s a great soundtrack. Highly recommended.