Movie Review: “Green Book” – Not Just Black and White

Written by Matt Butler January 25, 2019

Out of all the contenders for this year’s Best Picture, Green Book, a story of a grizzled American-Italian escorting an esoteric black jazz musician through the 1950s Deep South, strikes me as the lightest. Not just because it’s one of the two comedies nominated, Blackkklansman is more of a forthright account of a comical premise than an outright comedy anyway. Truly, Green Book’s premise promises a much weightier and more sympathetic story, but its execution is more in line with a buddy comedy. Think movies like Rain Man, Planes Trains & Automobiles or Tommy Boy and mix in some 60s systemic oppression, and you have something close to what Green Book ends up as.

You may think I’m being a snob here, but this is exactly what makes Green Book work so well, and what makes it stand apart from your usual crop of Best Picture hopefuls. The humour comes from the conflict. It’s not serious in spite of its comedy, nor vice versa, the two are inseparable.

Do you foresee any issues in working for a black man?

You, in the Deep South, there’s going to be problems.

This symbiotic relationship is personified by the leads, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) and Don Shirley. Tony’s a loosy-goosy contentious Italian American with only a passing understanding of literacy. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a clean-cut, tightly wound African American who holds himself to the highest standards. From a first encounter, these two seem complete opposites. But what is it they say about opposites again?

There is, however, one key trait that these two share, and that’s ego. When you really boil it down, Green Book is about an odd couple contesting in a series of jabs at each other’s egos. This is a refreshing twist on what initially comes off as a “Racist learns not to be Racist” story. Don’s arc of opening himself emotionally is just as vital to the film as Tony’s arc of escaping prejudice beliefs. This compelling character growth mixed with the leads’ obvious dramatic chops, and their surprisingly deft comedic timing, makes for a razor-sharp comedy that just so happens to be sweet and meaningful too.

You never win with violence. You only win when you maintain your dignity.

While Green Book is set in the racially charged 1960s, it’s only in the Deep South where things get really heated. Green Book could have set its entire story here, hit us over the head with a heavy block of white guilt, and that would have been fine. As far as screenplay shorthand goes, racism is one of the most effective ways to endear an audience to your characters. But just like race, it’s never quite so black and white. We see the varying levels of racism, from off-the-cuff insults, indentured servitude, police misconduct, physical abuse, you get the picture. Point is, the ways people, even humble good-natured people display prejudice is just as valid for discussion and presentation as the beatniks pulling knives in the night.

It’s worth mentioning though that the story isn’t altogether historical, as claimed by Shirley’s family, who denounced the film. They take issue with Shirley’s friendship with Lip, in that it apparently never was. Lip was his employee, Shirley was his employer, nothing more. Now, if you read my review of Bohemian Rhapsody – another Best Picture prospect – you’d know I took the very same issue with how the movie took the history of Freddie Mercury, and Queen as a whole, and re-purposed it in spite of flagrant historical inaccuracies. I stand by what I said regarding artistic liberties. Films are made to sell a feeling. Bohemian Rhapsody sells a shallow nostalgia for one of the most celebrated rock bands. Green Book sells a sentimental friendship between a simple man and an under-appreciated artist. Also, if you ask me, humility gives way to artistic liberty. So does an amazing script. Green Book is also way more respectful to its character’s conflicts, both in Shirley’s identity crisis as a not-so-black black man and as a closeted homosexual (this was only a rumour for the true-life Shirley. The film doesn’t dwell on it long.) For this, I give Green Book a pass.

“Being genius is not enough, it takes courage to change people’s hearts.”

Above all else, Green Book is undeniably entertaining. It takes the conflict of its time and the charm of its characters to make something as thoughtful as it is hilarious. More than an important Oscar hopeful, it’s a feel-good experience, one I’m sad I missed before Christmas.

My Rating: 9/10

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About Matt Butler

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is a strapping young English Major with a fiery passion for the art of cinematic storytelling. He likes long walks on the beach and knows the proper use of 'your' and 'you're'. (Example: I hope YOU'RE having a wonderful time browsing our site, and I hope you enjoy YOUR time reading my film reviews. I wrote them just for you.)

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