Great performances by Viggo Mortensen & Mahershala Ali make this an enjoyable and good movie. One can't help but wonder if the film couldn't have been even better if Dr. Shirley was the main character
If you told me that the director of Me, Myself & Irene, The Three Stooges, Movie 43 and would make a good movie that tackled the realities of race and class in 1960’s America, I would have laughed in your face. But that’s exactly what happened with Green Book and Peter Farrelly.
Green Book is about the friendship formed between classic pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his driver Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) as they embark on an 8 week concert tour through the South for Dr. Shirley. Tony is a blue collar, working-class white Italian white man while Dr. Shirley is rich and upper class. This makes Green Book works as a reverse Driving Miss Daisy. Even though Don Shirley is rich and upper class, he still has to deal with racism and Tony is forced to watch has his boss is treated unfairly. The reversal of roles is what makes this a different kind of film. Tony is clearly racist and prejudice but he’s forced to operate in a subservient role to Dr. Shirley. So while he’s educated by Dr. Shirley on race, the flipped power dynamics are what make it work. Shirley forces Tony to correct his grammar, gets on him about how he dresses and at one point even tries to get Tony to shorten his last name so that it’s easier for anyone who announces him to say. These are all micro-aggressions that black people are well aware of and by making the white character experience them, it makes Lip’s education not just about what he saw Shirley go through but what he had to do himself.
The character of Dr. Don Shirley is one that we typically do not see in films about 1960’s America: He’s black (obviously), rich, gay and doesn’t really fit into the preconceived notion of how a black man in the 1960’s would behave. While Tony Lip is the main character, the story is really about Shirley’s experiences in the south while on this tour and how lonely & disconnected he feels. He doesn’t have any family that he’s in contact with, he refuses to be stereotyped (which leads to the appearance that he thinks he’s better than other black people) and he’s not even shown to be that close to the members of his trio. Mahershala Ali is clearly going for another Best Supporting Actor win as Don Shirley. From the moment he walks onto the screen, Ali becomes the center of attention. He nails Dr. Shirley’s character & demeanor which is that of an overly confident man who doesn’t let anything get to him, mixed with the loneliness and insecurity. Pulling off those contradictory traits isn’t an easy task yet Ali does it with ease.
The racism in this film is also refreshing compared the racism in films like it. Typically these kinds of films about 60’s America only show the over-the-top, direct racism (Physical violence, segregation, sundown towns, etc). Now while there’s plenty of that in this film, there’s also a ton of micro-aggressions and subtle racism that’s just as prevalent (if not more). There’s the time when the host of a dinner in Don Shirley honor said he asked the kitchen staff and house workers (all black) to help prepare a menu that would honor Mr. Shirley and the meal was fried chicken and watermelon (earlier in the film Shirley admits to having never had fried chicken before). The film also does a great job throughout of showing that just because a black man was rich, well spoken & educated and talented, didn’t mean they were immune to the racist attitudes and policies of the time. You watch as Dr. Shirley is introduced at these events as the "honored guest" but he still has to walk through the side doors and through the kitchens and is given the broom closet for a dressing room.
Now that’s not to say I didn't have some issues with this film. First, despite it being different from the typical “racist white person realizes racism is wrong after spending extended time with black person” film, it’s still that. Tony Lip is the lead character, not Dr. Don Shirley. While the story is about what Shirley experienced, it’s still done from the perspective of the white character. The film opens with Tony putting the glasses two black plumbers drank water from while fixing his drain in the trash and ends with Tony inviting Dr. Shirley to spend Christmas dinner with his family. While a lot did happen in those 8 weeks on the road together, it’s still pretty jarring and feels almost too clean.
The second issue is the lack of interaction between Dr. Shirley and other black characters. It’s really hard to nail down Dr. Shirley’s feelings about other black people. There is definitely an air of respectability politics with the character but he’s never truly examined. Did he think he was better than them because he was rich? Did he feel like an outcast because his interests didn’t lie with the “typical black person” but wanted to be embraced? Was the fallout with his brother because he was gay? These are all questions that just don’t really get answered. We get a feel good moment with Shirley playing the piano at a black bar but it doesn’t really answer any of the questions. Both this and the first issue could have been solved if Dr. Shirley was the main character over Tony.
It’s easy to see why Green Book is getting Oscar buzz. Green Book is a good movie that balances the dark, serious reality of race in 1960’s America while still having some lighthearted and fun moments as well. By the end of the film you feel that Tony and Don became friends because of their shared experiences on the tour. But I can’t help but wonder how much better the film would have been if Dr. Shirley was the lead character and we did a deeper dive into his life. In the end, Green Book is a different kind of racist white person redemption story but it’s still a white person redemption story.