Green Book: Complacency and Condescension

Image courtesy of Universal.

* (out of 4)

Peter Farrelly’s Green Book tries to breathe new life into the interracial buddy narrative, a genre whose roots run all the way back to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At the film’s start, Tony (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer, finds himself temporarily out of work after his employer’s nightclub closes for renovations. Unwilling to work for the Mafia, he eventually agrees to become a chauffeur for Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black pianist who’s about to embark on a concert tour through the Deep South.

Over the past few months, Green Book has been a major hit with awards groups and audiences alike. And to a certain extent, its success is not unmerited. For starters, Green Book’s script can definitely get cringeworthy – witness a scene where Tony calls Pittsburgh “Tits-burgh” – and some of the narrative’s conflicts feel forced. Yet even then, you’ll find it hard not to be entertained by Don and Tony’s story. Deftly balancing humor with pathos, Green Book will come as a welcome surprise to anyone familiar with the crudeness of Farrelly’s previous works (e.g. Dumb and Dumber, The Three Stooges).

Its comedy aside, Farrelly’s latest effort also benefits from an excellent turn from Ali. At the beginning of the film, Ali’s Don seems like a bit of a caricature, a haughty, wannabe aristocrat who rapidly incurs Tony’s (and our) dislike. But as Ali proceeds to shows us, Don’s arrogance is actually just a façade, masking overwhelming feelings of despair, resentment, and inadequacy. Without ever coming off as strained, Ali successfully captures the essential loneliness of Don’s existence, the solitude of a man who’s viewed as a curiosity by whites and a sellout by other blacks.

Image courtesy of Universal.

Ultimately, however, Green Book’s humor and acting can’t redeem the two big things that the film gets wrong. Start with Farrelly’s depiction of bigotry. Throughout the film, the racism that Don confronts is invariably attitudinal. As with A United Kingdom and The Shape of Water, in other words, Green Book equates racism with angry white men who spew insults and use violence to ostracize minorities. Make these people understand that blacks are people too, Farrelly suggests, and – voilà – America will be cured of its racial problems.

Here, the issue with Farrelly’s approach is that it completely overlooks the more insidious forms that racism can take. As scholars like Michelle Alexander, Richard Rothstein, and Eddie Glaude have convincingly shown, racism isn’t just a matter of personal beliefs. In reality, it’s also a systemic problem, an ideology that has inflicted lasting harm on this nation’s economic, social, and cultural institutions. Issues like redlining, mass incarceration, and environmental injustice certainly aren’t as eye-catching as N-word-spouting Southerners. But the former have been just as damaging to minority communities as the latter, if not more so.

Admittedly, it would’ve been difficult for Farrelly to discuss the impact of housing laws through a buddy comedy. But Green Book doesn’t even acknowledge that racism is more than a question of good or bad intentions. Rather, Farrelly persistently clings to a superficial worldview, one in which all it’d take to make America “post-racial” is something like the election of a black president. The end result, unfortunately, is a film that trades provocation for comfort, offering incurious bromides about “how far we’ve come” since the days when blacks couldn’t dine alongside whites.

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From here, the other issue with Green Book concerns its character development. When it comes to how he treats Don, Farrelly oscillates between two approaches that prove equally condescending. On the one hand, there are scenes in which Tony teaches Don about life’s “pleasures,” like eating fried chicken, going to bars, and other simple activities that Don was unfamiliar with. In such moments, Don is portrayed as a man who needs to be helped. He’s a benighted individual, an uptight simpleton who can learn to live a “truly meaningful” life with the guidance of a benevolent white man.

In other parts of the film, meanwhile, Don’s emotional development is subordinated to Tony’s. To see what I mean by this, take a look at the ending. Having finished chauffeuring Don through the South, Tony has returned home to his family’s Christmas party – and over dinner, one of his relatives uses a racial slur to refer to Don. Once upon a time, Tony probably wouldn’t have batted an eye at this. But now that he’s Don’s friend, he knows better, and he thus tells his friend, “Don’t call him that.”

Taken at face value, this scene seems inoffensive, maybe even inspiring. But the problems with it become apparent when you consider the overall film’s structure. Generally speaking, after all, Green Book is set up in a way that privileges the perspective of Tony. Rarely is there a scene that depicts Don and Don alone: rather, we come into contact with him only when Tony comes into contact with him as well. Because of this, the prejudice that Don encounters is always filtered through Tony’s perspective. The latter’s role as a bystander to racism, in other words, is foregrounded over the former’s role as the person who directly experiences it.

Viewed in light of this overarching structure, the aforementioned dinner-party scene looks a lot less innocuous. In such scenes, in effect, Don is made into an auxiliary character. His experiences, particularly those with racism, are meaningful not in and of themselves, but only because they help Tony, a white person, become a better, more broad-minded person. In that sense, then, it’s almost as though Don’s significance were contingent upon Tony’s presence, reactions, and growth. That not only effaces Don’s dignity as an autonomous human being, but it also completely undermines the film’s message about racial equality.

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As it’s accumulated accolades during this awards season, Green Book has met with a fair amount of backlash. Frustratingly, however, a lot of it has simply centered around the predictability of the film’s narrative. In The New York Times, for instance, A.O. Scott claimed that “there’s not much here [in Green Book] you haven’t seen before.” Over at The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, Joe Morgenstern called Green Book “an illustrative construction in which each scene has a predictable shape and a clear-cut purpose.” And in his review for NPR, Mark Jenkins lamented that the film’s “epilogue builds to an utterly predictable resolution – as do many of the [earlier] scenes.”

These complaints are certainly reasonable. But at the end of the day, they ignore the problems that beset Green Book’s deeper ideological underpinnings. Throughout the film, Farrelly demonstrates an extremely limited understanding of what racism is and how it can be overcome. Moreover, in its attempts to construct a paean to equality, Green Book ironically ends up belittling Don, treating his needs as secondary to those of the white character he shares the screen with. By giving this their seal of approval, in short, Academy voters haven’t just recognized mediocrity. For all their avowed claims to the contrary, they’ve also shown that they still don’t know what “diversity in storytelling” really means.

Image courtesy of Universal.

***

Green Book (2018)

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali

Running Time: 130 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material.”

Produced by: Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Jim Burke, Charles B. Wessler

Written by: Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie

Directed by: Peter Farrelly