Green Book: not all black and white
Friday, February 8, 2019
Justinian in Critics Corner, Film review, Miss Lumière

Green Book, reviewed by Miss Lumière ... America in the 1960s ... The white working class tough guy on a tour of the South with a refined black musician ... What could go wrong? ... Food for thought ... "Motorist's guide for negroes" 

Driving Miss Daisy it ain't. 

And that's a blessed relief if, like this reviewer, you prefer your film fare with a little more substance and a lot more bite.

Green Book, "inspired by a true story", has plenty of political bite, as well as gigantic messy helpings of food – plates of Italian meatballs and clam linguine, handfuls of hotdogs and cheeseburgers and buckets of greasy Southern deep-fried chicken to chew on.

It's well known that one of the film's leads, Viggo Mortensen, who plays Bronx tough-guy Tony Vallelonga, rigorously stuffed his face for the role (no pun intended). 

It worked. He makes an all-too convincing working class Italian slob of Tony, also known as Tony Lip (for his "bullshitting", not his appetite).

On the road as a driver for one of America's first black pianist celebrities, the elegant and precious Dr Don Shirley, he continues stuffing himself, state by state.

And what a state the US was in, in 1962. 

The title Green Book refers to what was then the "negro motorist's guide" to places where blacks could "vacation without aggravation" i.e. the restaurants and motels that were "negro friendly".

Shirley, who was inveigled to abandon a classical music concert career due to lack of "acceptance" had deliberately opted to tour the Deep South with his modern jazz trio.  

As Tony asks in his thick-headed way "why?" The film answers that question, but it isn't the same answer that Shirley has given himself. 

That's both a strength and a weakness in the screenplay.

Co-written by Tony's son, the actor, writer and director Nick Vallelonga, the film rather too hastily promotes the idea that standing up for yourself in southern America was a sure-fire way to regain one's dignity as a black man.

James Baldwin (and your reviewer) beg to differ - it was more than likely a sure-fire way of getting lynched.

And the fact was, Shirley and Vallelonga were only released from a prison cell in Alabama - after an ugly altercation with the local constabulary - due to the intervention of the then US attorney general Robert Kennedy, a personal friend of Shirley's.

A case of the politics of reality overwhelming the unreality of film. 

But I digress. The film is also about two human beings finding their humanity.

Shirley's musical genius (and his courage) made him a pedant, an intellectual snob and a loner, qualities exquisitely conveyed by Mahershala Ali who was so luminous in Moonlight.

While Green Book has all the usual road movie tropes - sweeping landscapes, an odd couple, pride and prejudice (both inside and outside the car), deception, danger and redemption - it also has insight and humour at both characters' expense.

It that sense it's an equal opportunity, politically incorrect film.

The screenplay doesn't baulk at portraying class differences or showing Tony and his Italian milieu as blatant racists who call black people "melanzane" and can't quite believe Shirley is Tony's "boss".

One of the most moving scenes involving the oddity of such as arrangement in sixties America occurs when Tony stops the gleaming sky-blue Cadillac provided by Shirley's record company for the tour alongside a field where poor black workers are toiling in the dust and heat. 

Tony steps out of the driver's seat and opens the back door for Shirley, meticulously attired in a suit. 

The workers lean on their hoes in a daze, mesmerised by this extraordinary vision (surely not the Vision Splendid) as Shirley himself seems to look through them to a future he's intent on creating. 

Nothing is said, and in a film full of both fine and ugly words, it's an eloquent moment.

There are several more similar moments in the course of two hours, as well a generous serving of cheese at the end.

Your reviewer won't spoil it all for you, but the final scenes involve yet more food, even for thought.

P.S. Needless to say, the music is brilliant.

Green Book is screening now. It has been nominated for five Oscars. 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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