‘Green Book’ is racism-conscious, but not anti-racist

Thursday, November 29, 2018 - 4:45pm

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen Buy this photo
Dreamworks

Peter Farrelly’s (“There’s Something About Mary”) “Green Book” is the character-driven, feel-good story of the unconventional friendship that develops when Italian-American Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen, “Eastern Promises”) and African-American classical pianist Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”) are forced into two months of intimacy. After extra reassurances to help him get over the prospect of serving a Black man, Vallelonga accepts a job as the driver and — thanks in part to his reputation as a bouncer at the Copacabana — security aid to Dr. Shirley as he embarks on a tour in the Deep South. While feel-good films like “Green Book” are not inherently wrong strictly on the grounds of being feel-good, when they come across as more of a narcotic than a motivational force, their costs begin to outweigh their benefits. Unfortunately, “Green Book” skews toward the former function.

Sometimes, the term “friendship” accurately represents the relationship between the two men. As minutes on the road and experiences in Southern towns accumulate, the employer / employee dynamic evolves into a bond marked by historically unlikely loyalty. Like any good friends, they teach one another and, more importantly, are willing to learn from one another. The lessons Vallelonga imparts tend to be more light-hearted; for instance, he oversees Dr. Shirley’s first departure from an impeccably healthy diet into the unhealthy delights of fried chicken. Dr. Shirley’s lessons often have higher stakes; in the same example, when Vallelonga insists that Dr. Shirley should know all about fried chicken as a Black man, Dr. Shirley responds with an explanation of the covert racism embedded in such essentializing assumptions.

In that sense, the film is simultaneously aware that this is friendship: Despite personal prejudices, despite systemic racism, despite class differences and the list of ongoing historical crimes that plague relationships goes on. It is in this self-awareness that “Green Book” claims an unlikely victory, circumventing some of the problematic formulae into which this film could easily have tapped. The filmmakers did not decontextualize either character for the sake of the bond that drives “Green Book,” nor did they deemphasize each character’s historical situation. Especially in Dr. Shirley’s case, even while the prejudice of individual white men is foregrounded through his exchanges with Vallelonga, his struggles against systemic racism are highlighted (in multiple scenes, he faces discrimination from the police and faces legal responsibility for Vallelonga’s indiscretions). We also see the internalized racism he deals with through the scrutiny he receives from other Black men and women for playing classical music as opposed to jazz. Beyond avoiding racist stereotypes and tropes, “Green Book” attempts a panoramic awareness of racism that is commendable today, especially when possessors of white privilege try desperately to deny the existence of covert, systemic forms of racism.

However, these triumphs are diminished, if not reversed, by a troubling, though veiled, element of the film. While the socio-historical improbability of the friendship has a certain charm, the filmmakers have used it as a smokescreen to obscure problematic elements of the film that are only revealed when we refocus attention on the individuals that comprise the friendship. The white heroes — note the plurality, for Vallelonga’s wife (Linda Cardellini, “Brokeback Mountain”) is part of this heroization — are proponents of quiet resistance, of opposing racism through childlike loyalty to individual members of minorities, of shielding the oppressed from racism, fighting for, rather than alongside minorities. The Black hero — note the singularity, for Dr. Shirley is the only Black character lionized in the film — on the other hand, receives praise mainly for his ability to withstand racism, even if the white men whose prejudices he challenges fail to accept his challenge. While Vallelonga is the mouthpiece for these praises of Dr. Shirley’s resilience, his failure to directly counter racist comments hurled at Dr. Shirley in favor of conciliatory negotiations or physical violence is a silence that weighs heavier every scene. 

For this reason, while “Green Book” is racism-conscious, it is not anti-racist. It seeks palatability for white audience members to the point of inducing an immobilizing complacency, when what we need now more than ever are unabashed, rallying anti-racist messages. Though moving and comforting, “Green Book” misses a mark we cannot afford to fumble.