Sunday, February 24, 2019

GREEN BOOK (2018): Friendship with a Lonely Black Artist

The film Green Book, a relatively non-controversial film, is the subject of controversy.  Hollywood loves stirring up real or imagined controversy to keep attention upon itself.  So do many film critics who wish to appear relevant.

In this 130-minute movie biopic, Don “Doc” Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black classical pianist, hires Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a bouncer at a bar, for protection as he goes on a tour to play at a number of venues in the south.  The movie takes place in the early 1960s.  Though at first ill at ease in the company of each other, they become the closest of friends after many close calls.  Both are relieved to be leaving the south by the end of the film.

Besides Don and Tony, the only major character in the film is Dolores (Linda Cardellini), Tony’s wife.  She’s the only one who seems to understand early on that Tony is a better person than what we at first see. When Tony is not caught up in acting a part, he is capable of sincere feeling.

Though popular with movie audiences, reviews of the film are mixed.  Some reviewers, unsure about what they see on the screen, feel the need be on the safe side of any controversy.  It’s difficult to take seriously such film critics to begin with.  They like to describe the film as another Driving Ms. Daisy, and claim Green Book is really about a white savior upstaging the central black character on the screen.  In point of fact, Mortenson portrays Tony as a character with racist tendencies who nevertheless comes around to admire the black man he is there to protect.  Tony grows up overtime throughout the course of the film.

More to the point, the character of Shirley shows a great deal more complexity and depth than some reviewers (and even other Hollywood actors including Bill Murray) seem to acknowledge.  He is neither stereotypical nor a sidekick for Tony.  Shirley, a black classical pianist who also apparently was gay deciding to make a tour of the south in the early 1960s, was certainly an anomaly.  He knew what he was getting into when taking the tour, and decided to go ahead with it in any case.  How could such an individual not feel lonely or misunderstood at certain points in time?

Family members of Don “Doc” Shirley, one of the two main characters in this biopic, object to the movie as not being true to the facts.  The family felt that the film wrongly projected Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, as lonely and cut off from the black community.  They mention the real-life Shirley’s involvement in the Selma march as evidence of this.  Also, they claim there was no real friendship between Shirley and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen.  They describe the relationship as an “employer-employee relationship.”

I sympathize with such criticism if it was indeed true.  But it’s not clear if the family got the facts right.  Don Shirley stated in the 2011 documentary, Lost Bohemia that: “I trusted him [Tony Vallelonga] implicitly. Tony, not only was he my driver.  We never had an employer-employee relationship.  We got to be friendly with one another.”

Putting aside controversies, Peter Farrelly directs a straightforward and overall entertaining film.  Green Book is also a bit too predictable.  Going in, we know that the two main characters will become friends by the film’s end.

Still, what is refreshing about this movie as compared to a film like If Beale Street Could Talk, is that Green Book contains humor.  Humor is almost entirely missing in a Hollywood that takes itself far too seriously.  While Mortenson gets to say most of the comic lines, Mahershala Ali provides his share of humor as well.  More importantly, the two characters who have almost nothing in common, form a credible if difficult friendship.  Green Book is not a film that is cynical or crass.

© Robert S. Miller 2019
February 24, 2019