Can you enjoy a film in the moment without respecting it in the morning? This question arose for me after watching 2018’s The Green Book, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, one day before it won three Golden Globes.
Inspired by a true story, the film has garnered acclaim for its performances and message of cross-racial unity. Many writers, however, have condemned it for being a typical Hollywood “white savior film,” as well as questioning the screenplay’s accuracy regarding Mr. Shirley’s life. My concern is of a different nature, notably, the challenge of enjoying aspects of a film—including its pacing, humor, and performances—while simultaneously sensing the screenplay willfully suppresses deeper depths for the sake of access. The first rule of public speaking is to know your audience; mainstream films often presume their audiences, even those seeking “adult” comedies and dramas, are unable and unwilling to be challenged. As a result, films like The Green Book shuffles about rather than moving confidently, fearful that audiences can’t catch up. I can imagine a viewer emerging from the film feeling optimistic that people can bond across races, but not necessarily thinking about why many Americans know so little about the struggles of African-Americans to maintain their dignity in a society that routinely challenges their humanity and patience.
The plot: Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley (1927-2013) an erudite classically trained black pianist (Shirley was of Jamaican descent which the film does not mention) who leads a polished jazz trio. Shirley decides to embark on a national tour through the Midwest and South in fall 1962 and seeks a driver and personal valet to support the trio over two months. Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga (aka Tony “Lip”; 1930-2013) an Italian-American bouncer who works at the Copacabana night club. Tony, as depicted by Mortensen, is a coarse “bullshitter” with limited formal education who regularly utters racial epithets in English and Italian. On hiatus from the club, he reluctantly agrees to serve as Mr. Shirley’s chauffeur and valet from October through Christmas. As the unlikely pair traverses the middle and lower half of the country via a blue 1962 Cadillac, they vacillate from Mr. Shirley advising Tony to be mindful of his language and manners to Tony “introducing” Shirley to some of life’s most underrated pleasures including fried chicken (which Tony assumes a black man would be familiar with) to rock ‘n’ roll and soul music. The film is a highly episodic comedy of manners, achieved mostly through comic banter on the road in the Cadillac, laced with blunt dramatic moments when the duo is not in motion.
The film addresses racial realities earnestly to a frustrating degree. For example, Tony is given a green book, information guides regarding black friendly hotels and restaurants, created for black motorists traveling through the interstate highway system. During the trip, Tony connects the dots when he discovers that Dr. Shirley is often not allowed to reside in nor dine in the same venues as whites. Though these indignities seem obvious today, mocking the film’s genuine attempts to illustrate the distance between the characters’ worlds, which some reviewers have done, seems churlish. One can easily believe Tony is unaware of these things as he is written as a highly insular character cloistered in his Bronx neighborhood.
Where the film struggles its willing blindness to audience members who are already aware of these things and may crave more than just an introduction to racism. This is related to the film’s developmental arc. As noted above, much of the film is about Tony discovering systemic racism even though his language and attitudes are symptoms of it. Unfortunately, though the film provides Mr. Ali with some choice moments of dialogue, including eloquently expressing his plight as a black man who does not fit into the black or white worlds of the time, we never get know him as a person rather than a symbol.
Aside from a few references to his education and nibbles about his family, aspects of his upbringing, such as his Caribbean heritage, are strangely absent. The screenwriters (including Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son) undoubtedly assumed that as a black man he did not need to be schooled on racism and needed less of an arc. As such, the film skirts around significant details, such as his queer sexuality which is hinted at in a hasty scene, yet we are made intimately familiar with Tony’s home life and friends. While the imagined “general” viewer may well benefit from the expository racism lessons Mr. Ali’s fights to give his character some depth mirrors the frustration of more informed viewers to craving something more probing. By placing the presumed historical ignorance of the general audience at the center of its address the film cheats them by insisting they could not handle more and overlooking the bigger picture understood by many viewers.
At issue is not just Dr. Shirley’s individual struggles with racism but the larger realities that defined the lives of black entertainers of Dr. Shirley’s generation. Numerous critics and scholars have documented the demands of black male entertainers such as Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr. to perform before racially mixed audiences and have equal access to dining and lodging. In the film, Shirley is experiencing these harrowing moments of humiliation nearly a decade after Brown vs. the Board of Education and in parallel to the civil rights movement. Yet he nor any other characters reference the movement in any significant capacity, nor the failure of the law or political organizing to protect blacks from discrimination in the South.
Though the film’s depiction of Tony introducing Dr. Shirley to Kentucky Fried Chicken and the joys of Aretha Franklin is supposed to reveal how sheltered and tightly wound Shirley is, the need to “lighten up” and get in touch with some amorphous “roots” was not exactly the primary concern of African-Americans in the early 1960s.
A more nuanced depiction of blackness would look beyond facile stereotypes about blackness and locate Shirley within the larger struggle for civil rights and social inclusion happening at the time. His insistence on maintaining his dignity, avoiding violence and projecting calm assurance is not an idiosyncratic quirk of the black elite—it’s a survival strategy. Had the film exposed us more to his background and his struggles rather than beginning his life with the road trip his didactic interactions with Tony would have more context. He’s not just trying to get Tony to mind his manners; he’s trying to get him to understand that any move he makes could easily lead to violence or death.
There are moments when violence toward Dr. Shirley erupts in the film, and predictably Tony “saves” him. While these moments may have occurred in real life, the film’s insistence on zipping through them and moving the plot forward dulls their sting. These dual assaults to his racial and gender identity make Dr. Shirley’s ability to maintain and project dignity something worth lingering over. We know Dr. Shirley is lonely and even depressed, but the film wants us to turn away when things get too serious. Tony grows form what he observes but Dr. Shirley remains elusive.
As I noted earlier, The Green Book is a very watchable film that succeeds within the modest parameters of Hollywood movies. Mr. Ali and Mr. Mortensen have a snappy rapport, the film is breezily paced, and the screenplay hits its big emotional targets expertly. While checking all the “feel good” boxes the film is not to be trusted emotionally or intellectually. Dr. Shirley’s immense talents, relative commercial obscurity and the richness of his story hinted at here is so intriguing it really deserves more than the standard Hollywood treatment.
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